It’s no secret that heading up one of the nation’s many agricultural organizations can be a lucrative day job, but the people commanding those hefty paychecks are being tasked with navigating a shifting to-do list as they lead their workforces and their industries.

Agri-Pulse’s annual report on top executive compensation shows an unsurprising increase in many of the salaries commanded by the sector’s top talent. Conversations with those who closely follow the industry’s staffing needs show just what it takes to get — and keep — one of those top-paying positions.

Greg Manns has been with Industry Insights — an association research and information firm based in Dublin, Ohio — for nearly three decades, and he has seen many cases of association boards opting to pay a premium for top-tier leadership.

“There's certainly a limited space in the association world, and it definitely takes … a very unique individual with a very unique skill set to be a successful association executive. And when these associations find those people, they do pay a pretty penny for them,” Manns said in an interview with Agri-Pulse.

Couple the desire for a quality leader with the opportunity that individual might have to pursue more lucrative opportunities in the private sector, or perhaps at another association, and it’s a recipe for swelling paychecks. But Manns also expects the rate of increase to slow in the near term.

“Obviously the last two years have been an extremely competitive landscape and you've seen these much larger percentage increases not only in base salary but in incentive pay than we've seen historically,” he said. “We've seen very big increases, double-digit increases in compensation. Which, obviously, that can't go on forever just with the budgetary pressures that are going to be present.”

For this year’s report, Agri-Pulse combed through the Form 990 tax filings of more than 140 agricultural, food, environmental and energy nonprofits to find the most recent compensation figure reported for their top executive.

The report's findings underscore Manns' interpretation of the marketplace. The median salary in the 2023 report was just under $425,000, an 8.6% increase over the median in Agri-Pulse's 2022 report and a 17.6% increase over the figures compiled five years ago. 

The CEO positions included in the report vary widely in terms of the relative size of the organizations as well as the executives' roles and responsibilities.

One CEO on our list might be in charge of one of the country’s checkoff programs and be subject to USDA oversight, while another CEO may seldom interact with USDA because his or her issue area is more involved with the Environmental Protection Agency.

One CEO might answer to a board of 150 and membership in the thousands, while another might answer to a membership of 150 and a board of a handful of top private-sector executives. 

And then there are the organizations that task their leaders with overseeing a private entity under the association’s umbrella, such as an insurance company or a real estate management firm.

“It takes a person with a very special skill set to manage associations,” Manns said. “You have to have that technical expertise on the one side if they're doing any kind of government regulatory-facing role, any sort of … lobbying role. And then also on the flip side, being able to have that strong personality, if you will, to manage conflicts even within your own membership.”

So what happens when an association finds itself with an empty chair at its highest position? For many organizations, they call someone like Jared Spader, managing director at Kincannon & Reed, an executive search firm focusing on the food and agriculture industries.

He’s currently involved with the searches for leaders to fill the vacancy atop U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action, which amicably parted ways with former CEO Erin Fitzgerald in April, and the United Soybean Board, whose CEO Polly Ruhland plans to retire at the end of the year.

Spader detailed the search process in a conversation with Agri-Pulse, offering an insight into the workings of a process he said “has been honed for 40 years” by Kincannon & Reed. The process starts with developing a profile for the position before searching the firm's database for 100 to 150 individuals who could receive a preliminary phone call to gauge their interest. That list will then be narrowed down to 10 to 15 people for a semifinal round of interviews.

Jared-Spader-300.jpgJared Spader, Kincannon & Reed

“In our process, we're not looking to boil the ocean regarding the number of candidates, because if [organizations] want to do that, they could just spend time on LinkedIn and find lots and lots of people,” he said. “We have a very targeted approach and how we do this.”

“When you're talking about leaders at this level, they all are good,” he added. “They all know how to hit the numbers. They all have been trained to be adept communicators in any form and fashion.”

Don't miss a beat! Sign up for a FREE month of Agri-Pulse news! For the latest on what’s happening in agriculture in Washington, D.C. and around the country, click here.

Instead, Spader said, the fit often comes down to the personality and leadership style sought by the association’s search committee.

“People leave jobs because of leaders and people go to jobs and go to organizations because of leaders and the environments they create,” he said.

In the years since the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spader said many employees are reporting a desire to feel more purpose in their work. While agriculture jobs can come with a built-in mission of “feeding the world,” an ineffective or poor executive can create a climate that discourages employees from pursuing that purpose at that particular organization.

“I think there's lots of lip service that gets paid to (leadership style) … but this is a moment in time where you as a leader, it really is a differentiator for you,” Spader said. “Frankly, in the way that the world operates, the word gets around whether you are that (leader) or you're not … You certainly can't hide from it in the circles that we operate.” 

brewer-brady.jpgBrady Brewer, Purdue

The path one takes to being on Spader’s list as a potential executive can vary, but one professor studying the subject tells Agri-Pulse the conventional upward mobility from entry-level to executive is a path that is “pretty alive and well in agriculture.”

Brady Brewer is an associate professor in Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, where he oversees a project that scans the internet for job postings in agriculture and analyzes everything from seasonal harvest help to listings with compensation in the mid-six-figure range.

Brewer said for many of the job descriptions that show up in Purdue’s study, he’s noticing a growing push for some kind of data analysis competency in more senior roles; roughly one-third of all positions scraped for his study mention “quantitative analysis.” Of those positions, Brewer said about 10% mention programming and coding.

No matter the position, from CEO to entry-level coordinator positions, nonprofit work isn't necessarily a lower-stress route than the private sector, according to Brewer.

Nonprofit organizations “still have to provide value to clients, whether it be farmers or agribusinesses, and people have to be willing to pay for their services,” he said.

Click here for a complete list of the executives included in this year's report.

Interested in how the salaries have changed? Check out last year's report. 

For more news, go to