Amidst all the hubbub about last year’s Farm Bill, which healthy food advocates criticized for maintaining the commodity subsidies that make “Big, Unhealthy Ag” profitable, young farmers-to-be might have missed a few small but significant changes worth celebrating. The 2008 Bill has new and expanded provisions for beginning farmers and ranchers, a demographic that needs the support of everyone who eats. Earlier this month, the USDA’s 2007 Ag Census reported that the average age of the American farmer is 57, up from 55 in 2002’s Census. We are now a nation at risk of losing a generation of farmers who know how to adapt their means of agriculture to the particular piece of land on which they stand. That knowledge is critical to a sound, sustainable food system and would take many more generations to reaccumulate. If we want to ensure that our food is safe and nutritious, then we’d better convince a whole lot of young people to become farmers or to keep farming their family’s land, and we’d better do it fast.
Like me, many young people who imagine themselves future farmers are city-born, office-bound and for the most part unfamiliar with the federal government’s programs to support farmers. To learn more about them, I consulted the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s “Grassroots Guide to the 2008 Farm Bill” and listened to a recording of a panel discussion on “New and Beginning Farmer Opportunities from the Farm Bill” that convened at last month’s Eco-Farm Conference. I’m compiling what I’ve learned into the list that appears below. I should be clear that this list is an overview and only gives an idea of what’s out there to help new farmers. If you’d like to dig deeper, please read the full text of NSAC’s Guide or read the USDA’s lengthy but comprehensive “Provisions for Traditionally Underserved Groups in the 2008 Farm Bill.”
Consider this list a call to action. If enough of us young farmers-to-be contact our local Farm Services Agencies to ask about these programs, if enough of us apply for these loans and grants and if enough of us demand that these policies be put into action, then legislators will come to see that there’s a groundswell of young people who are passionate about farming and who feel a personal duty to grow and share real food. When the next Farm Bill comes up for reauthorization in four years, politicians must feel our pressure to respond to the food, agriculture and health needs of the people.
Here are some places to begin:
• The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program funds competitive grants for education, extension, outreach and technical assistance initiatives to help beginning farmers and ranchers get started. The grants go to community-based organizations (like California Farm Link and the Center for Rural Affairs), university extension agencies and state agencies that link retiring farmers with new farmers looking for land, train new farmers in business practices, create on-farm apprenticeships and so on. The 2008 Farm Bill mandates $75 million in funding for the program and authorizes an additional $30 million a year for appropriations, so keep an eye out for organizations and agencies in your area that will soon be able to expand or launch their programs to train new farmers.
• The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Accounts Pilot Program helps beginning farmers finance farm purchases and operations through matched-savings accounts. Beginning farmers who are eligible (i.e. don’t already have the money to buy a farm) can start a savings account and have their deposits matched one-to-one or two-to-one by the government, i.e., if you deposit $100 a month, the government will deposit either $100 or $200 a month along with you. The 2008 Farm Bill authorizes $5 million for the program, but Congress hasn’t appropriated that funding yet. If they appropriate it this year, the program would probably begin in 2010.
• Loan Set-Asides are government credit programs that are targeted at beginning farmers who have little credit history and find it hard to convince banks to loan them money to purchase farms. In order to address “the aging of American agriculture and the loss of minority land ownership,” the 2008 Farm Bill raises the percentage of Direct Farm Ownership and Operating Loans (where the government loans the money directly) and Guaranteed Farm Ownership Loans (where the government guarantees the bank’s loan) that are reserved for beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers to 75%, 40% and 50%, respectively. Point is, the government will give you or help you get loans.
• The Down Payment Loan Program is a credit program that’s specific to finding the money to purchase a farm. If a beginning farmer can make a down payment equivalent to 5% of a piece of land’s value, then the government will cover the next 45% of the loan at an interest rate that is 4% lower than the loan rate established by the USDA’s Farm Services Agency. The remaining 50% of the loan can come from a bank or private lender. The 2008 Farm Bill decreased the down payment to this percentage from 10% and decreased the interest rate to this percentage from 4%, both of which are significant improvements.
• The Conservation Reserve Program seeks to conserve and improve soil, water and wildlife resources by temporarily renting land from farmers and removing it from agricultural production. A brand-new Transition Option for Beginning Farmers and Ranchers provides an extra two years of rental payments to landowners whose Conservation Reserve contract is about to end if the landowner agrees to then rent or sell their land to a beginning farmer or rancher. The new farmer must agree to graze animals or grow crops sustainably and can transition to organic agriculture. This program is new to the 2008 Farm Bill.
• The Contract Land Sales Program provides an incentive for farm transitions in the form of loan guarantees to retiring farmers who can self-finance the sale of their land to beginning farmers. The 2008 Farm Bill makes this program permanent and available nationwide.
• The Environmental Quality Incentives Program gives financial cost-share assistance and technical help to farmers who voluntarily implement conservation practices like water and energy conservation or (new this year) responsible forest management and organic agriculture. In the 2008 Farm Bill, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers are eligible for cost-share rates 25% above the usual rate and up to 90% of the practice costs. That’s substantial help for young farmers looking to try smart and innovative farm practices.
• The Value-Added Producer Grants Program gives competitive grants to farmers and ranchers seeking to create or develop value-added, producer-owned businesses. “Value-added” refers to an agricultural crop or product that has been transformed or marketed in a way that enhances its value to consumers, e.g. apples that the farm turns into apple cider or beef that’s grass-fed and can be sold at a higher price. In addition to improving the program’s scope (“local” is now considered value-added) and application process, the 2008 Farm Bill advises the USDA to grant priority to projects that increase opportunities for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. The Farmers’ Market Promotion Program and Rural Cooperative Development Grants also give priority to beginning farmers.
• The Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program is a new program in the 2008 Farm Bill to provide potential entrepreneurs in rural areas with the skills necessary to establish new businesses and continue operating existing small businesses. The loans and grants go to regional non-profits, Indian tribes and public institutions that create skills training programs and grant micro-loans to new entrepreneurs. The 2008 Farm Bill authorizes $15 million in mandatory funding for the program. If you’re looking for advice and technical help on starting a small business (local food marketing? kitchen garden installation?) in a rural area, watch for new and expanded training programs in your area.
• There are also a number of new or expanded resources in the 2008 Farm Bill that are not specific to beginning farmers but that are generally available to small- and medium-scale, diversified, organic and environmentally responsible farms: The Conservation Stewardship Program, The Organic Certification Cost-Share Program, The Rural Energy for America (REAP) Program and Community Food Project Grants. The 2007 Ag Census shows that young farmers starting or taking over operations tend to farm in ways that can benefit from these programs, so young farmers-to-be should read through all of them.
In sum, there is a toolkit of resources available to young people who want to learn to farm, to purchase a farm or to try out new farm practices. I had this in mind last week while attending a panel discussion at UC Berkeley on local meat production. There, I was surprised to hear Mac MacGruder, a local rancher, tell a crowd of students, “For the first time in thirty years, I think you can make a living at this.” Take that to heart.