The 2014 Farm Bill included a number of measures to encourage and support beginning farmers along with others such as socially disadvantaged, limited resource and returning military veteran farmers. There are a plethora of well-intended programs and special provisions or exceptions across multiple agencies designed to give folks who need a leg up or a helping hand. We all know it requires an incredible amount of dedication and determination to break into farming these days, as well as significant financial resources.

As we enter the run-up to the next farm bill, it’s time to evaluate those programs and provisions to determine if they are providing the right kind of help to those who want to make a living from the land. We also want to ensure that we’re not unnecessarily subsidizing hobbyists or others who just enjoy living in the country. It’s critical to all of us to help develop the next generation of producers who will take on the daunting task of feeding the 8 billion souls sharing the planet by 2025 and the 9.4 billion expected by 2050.

Under the 2014 Farm Bill, new farmers can receive a number of benefits from USDA programs including priority for land purchases of federally owned farmland, waivers of fees or reduced fees for a variety of programs, favorable terms for operating or purchase loans, set-asides of 50 percent of funds for operating loans and 75 percent of funds for land purchases, private loan guarantees and a higher payment rate for installing conservation practices. There are also grant programs to encourage organizations to provide training and mentoring for new farmers.

One of the first things we need to consider is defining a “beginning” farmer or rancher. For most USDA programs, this currently means someone who’s been in farming 10 years or less. This sounds pretty straightforward and reasonable, but I have to admit it would have been tough for me. That’s because I bought my first cows at age 13, so I would no longer have been eligible for help by the time I was 23. I understand the Administration is currently interpreting this scenerio as a “student” loan, which should not prevent students who also are involved in agriculture from qualifying for assistance when they become ready to make farming their livelihood. However, this should be codified to avoid questions in the future.

It would be helpful for the House and Senate Ag Committees to ask USDA how many farmers and ranchers are we serving through these programs and special provisions. Are the funding and set-asides sufficient to meet the need? Do the programs really make it possible for would-be farmers to set up viable farming or ranching operations? Or are the caps for purchase and operating loans too low to enable beginners, veterans or those who face disadvantages or limited resources to get into production agriculture?

Let’s ask about the size of operations that these programs serve. Are we empowering these farms to grow and expand so they can develop operations that provide an income comparable to their counterparts in urban areas? On the other hand, are the criteria stringent enough to ensure that funds go to those who really want to produce the food and fiber our nation and the world need?

Are there additional steps we could take within existing programs that could help these new farmers? What about directing the Forest Service to make available unused grazing allotments to beginning farmers and encouraging the Bureau of Land Management to do the same with land it controls? I understand the Forest Service has nearly 800 allotments nationwide that aren’t being utilized; surely a few of those could be used by beginning ranchers get that property back into productive use?

Several years ago, I was asked to speak in Omaha to a Farm Credit System gathering of young farmers from the Plains states to review USDA programs for beginning farmers and ranchers. I was happy to talk with them, but I also had to tell them that if they were large enough to be invited to the meeting, they were probably already operating at a size and scale beyond the scope of USDA programs. While I said that in jest, I am afraid it is all too true. Most program limitations cap out before farmers can really reach a size and scope to be a viable, sustainabile farm operation. 

Now is the time for our elected representatives to hold oversight hearings and carefully evaluate the programs and special provisions designed in the 2014 Farm Bill to help new producers. Let’s tweak them if needed to ensure they meet the needs and provide the intended help to our next generation of farmers and ranchers.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.


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