By Lindsey Lusher-Shute
With farmers retiring faster than they’re being replaced, a lot of people are worried about who will be feeding America in fifty years. There is growing interest among young people in farming careers, but they are experiencing significant barriers that are keeping them from realizing their potential in agriculture—and preventing the nation from renewing its farming population.
In June, eleven beginning farmers, representing ten key states, traveled to the nation’s capital to talk to their elected officials about what they need to succeed and how the federal government can help. A diverse group, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Center for Rural Affairs, Land Stewardship Project, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Practical Farmers of Iowa, The Land Connection, California Farm Link and the National Young Farmers’ Coalition, organized the trip.
The primary focus of the meetings was the “Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Opportunity Act of 2011”. This soon-to-be-introduced bill, sponsored by Representative Waltz of Minnesota and Senator Harkin of Iowa, contains a set of provisions to fix, fund and add to existing USDA programs for young and beginning farmers in the US. The hope is that the bill will be rolled into the eventual Farm Bill legislation.
The Farm Bill first recognized beginning farmers in 1990, defining farmers of any age in their first ten years. The 2008 bill went further by expanding programs and adding new grant money for training. The Opportunity Act seeks to build on the 2008 bill.
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), overseen by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), is one of the programs that would go further to help beginners. This program shares in the cost of conservation-minded farm improvements, such as cover crop planting and hoop houses. One of the current challenges with EQIP is that farmers must pay for these projects up front and then be reimbursed by USDA, which can pose a significant challenge for limited resource beginners. The existing program allows beginning farmers a 30% advance on the cost of the project, and the Act would up that advance payment to 50% of the project cost. The resulting payment from the USDA would be the same, but beginners would need to come up with less cash to get their projects started. The program would also give additional preference to beginning farmers, at least 10% of program funds.
Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan rules would also be revamped under the Opportunity Act. FSA’s direct farm ownership loans, an important tool for farmers looking to buy land, are now capped at $300,000–which doesn’t go far in the many real estate markets. The Opportunity Act would give FSA the discretionary authority to adjust the current loan limit upwards in regions with exceptionally high real estate prices, making these loans more applicable in the Northeast.
The Opportunity Act would also help more beginners qualify for FSA farm ownership loans by reducing the requirement for farm managerial experience. At present, growers must have three years of farm ownership or managerial experience to qualify for a loan. The Opportunity Act reduces that requirement to two years and directs FSA to consider a broader range of farm experience, including apprenticeships, on-farm employment and mentorships as relevant experience in meeting the requirement.
Access to capital being one of the most significant barriers to getting a farm business started, one of the most exciting elements of the Opportunity Act is a newly proposed microloan program. The Act would enable FSA to serve young growers more effectively by creating a new category of microloans loans. As written, the microloan program offers growers ages 20-35 up to $35,000 in assistance. The loans would be marketed to young people, with simplified paperwork and loan requirements.
Another way to get capital into the hands of beginners is through Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) or a matched savings account. This model, now employed by non-profit organizations in California, Iowa and Michigan, helps growers save money in their first years by matching up to a specific amount of money for farm investments. During the saving period, program participants are typically required to attend business development classes and they may be matched with a mentor. A pilot IDA program was authorized for 15 states in the 2008 Farm Bill, but despite advocacy efforts, it yet to receive funding from Congress. The Opportunity Act proposes that IDAs receive mandatory funding.
The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), a competitive grant program that supports universities and non-profits in the training of beginning farmers, would also be reauthorized and given more funding in the Opportunity Act. Two recipients in New York State include Cornell University and the NY Organic Farming Association. Cornell’s funds were used to start a Beginning Farmer Learning Network among hundreds of service providers in the Northeast, as well as an educational website and video series. With help from BFRDP, NOFA-NY hired a beginning farmer specialist and offered new classes targeted at new and aspiring growers.
There is much more to the Beginning Farmer and Ranchers Opportunity Act, and help is needed to win bill sponsors and local support. To read the full set of proposals and engage your local member of Congress on the issue of beginning farmers, visit the National Young Farmers’ Coalition at youngfarmers.org.