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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