Vilsack 'hopeful' about future for beginning farmers, ranchers

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 17, 2016 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack awarded almost $18 million in funding for projects impacting beginning farmers and ranchers on the heels of a roundtable discussion in his home state with producers who are just getting started.

The funding is allocated through USDA's Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, and today's announcement brings the total investment in that program to more than $126 million during Vilsack's tenure as secretary. In all, 37 projects will receive six-figure grants “to help educate, mentor, and enhance the sustainability of the next generation of farmers,” USDA said in a release.

Lets Talk Food

On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Vilsack mentioned a wide swath of potential people looking to get into production agriculture ranging from the traditional farm family member to the returning veteran. 

“There are now options and doors available for every one of those individuals to get in the business,” he said. “I think you're going to continue to see an increase” in beginning producers. Vilsack has made statements about a desire to add 100,000 new farmers and ranchers, but said today he isn't sure how far along USDA is on that goal. However, the “framework and foundation” are there for those looking to join the industry, he said.

Vilsack had a roundtable conversation with producers in the early stages of their agricultural careers on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. He said he came away from that talk better aware of some of the issues the producers are facing. Chief among those concerns is acquiring the most necessary resource for food production: land. Vilsack said to truly address that issue, the conversation about some complex tax issues might need to change.

“The continued focus on the estate tax makes no sense to me; it's the income tax that's creating the barrier to access to land,” Vilsack said. The estate tax has commonly been dubbed the “death tax” in conservative circles because it's assessed after a landowner dies. Ag groups say the tax disproportionately hits producers due to the relatively high value of land, which can be taxed but not easily liquidated like a cash inheritance.

Vilsack said his conversation also touched on issues surrounding the need for flexibility within the Conservation Reserve Program, incentives for land sales from older landowners, and the need to approach the next farm bill from a perspective of need rather than potential savings.

“I think there's a tremendous interest out there, and the challenge will be to make sure that we continue it,” Vilsack said. “Based on the conversation I had today, I leave Ames, Iowa, hopeful about the future of agriculture and the fact that we are making more opportunities available to folks.”

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In addition to the funding, Vilsack also announced a series of forums that will gather information on “emerging issues or existing issues that require some thought.” Information gleaned from the dialogues will be used in formulating a transition document for the next administration.

Events will be held on college campuses in several states that will be key in the November elections, including Colorado, Florida, and North Carolina, along with Arkansas, Arizona, and New Hampshire. The sessions will focus on issues ranging from land tenure and export markets to climate variability and research opportunities.

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