Young Farmers Begin the Path Towards Equality with Loans

Starting a farm is not easy, a business in which high startup costs and a lack of available land for purchase or rent are obvious obstacles. As our nation’s farmers grow older–the average American farmer is 57–and we simultaneously undergo a shift towards reclaiming our food system, young and beginning farmers are stepping up. Government programs designed to help farmers have existed for many years, but much of this funding is only within reach of large-scale producers that have been in the business for many years. Several USDA programs are geared towards helping farms based on production, favoring commodity farmers and large-scale farmers, which keep these loans out of the hands of smaller start-ups.

But new opportunities are in development for young farmers. As Lindsey Lusher Shute, executive director of the National Young Farmer’s Coalition told the New York Times about the struggle to form policies aimed at helping young farmers, “Everyone wants young farmers to succeed—we all know that. But no one was addressing this big elephant in the room, which was capital and land access.” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack suggested that Congress make it a goal to add 100,000 new farmers.

Adding more new and young farmers does more than increase access to local food for more people and improve our food system–it puts a new face on agriculture in our country, and makes the farmer population more egalitarian. The USDA found that beginning farmers are more likely than established farmers to be female, non-White, or Hispanic. In addition, in 2009, Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) funding was granted to Holistic Management International (HMI), an organization that provides training and support to women farmers.

Government loan programs for farms were recently discussed and amended in Congress and the Senate for the Farm Bill draft. The Transitions Incentives Program promotes the sale of land coming out of the Land Retirement Program to beginning ranchers and farmers. This program is especially valuable right now, as beginning farmers look to purchase or rent new plots, but the funding for this program will likely run out in the next few years if its budget is not increased.

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Accounts Program was reauthorized but requires more funding to be effective; its funding was decreased by $25 million, cutting annual funding almost in half. Finally, the current Senate draft of the farm bill also defunds the Outreach and Technical Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program, which, considering the higher-than-average rate of non-White and Hispanic farmers entering the industry, seems to be at odds with what the country needs.

A few provisions in the Senate’s draft of the farm bill are designed to help balance the loan advantages that benefit large-scale and commodity farmers. One provision includes a young and beginning farmer microloan program and a directive to coordinate the borrower training program required by borrowers of Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans, with financial training programs. FSA loans are available for beginning farmers looking to purchase land to start organic community supported agriculture (CSA) farms.

Some problems young farmers have previously experienced when applying for these loans come from stipulations in the program that require pre-approval, which means that farmers cannot quickly bid on a property, putting bidders at a disadvantage in a fast-moving market. But things are looking up.

In May, the USDA announced a new proposed rule for a microloan program for up to $35,000 within the FSA system that has less requirements and a more streamlined application process. The new system was crafted to benefit farmers pursuing opportunities like direct-to-consumer sales, niche markets, urban agriculture, and other less conventional business models. The proposed modifications include lower interest rates, more flexible payment schedules, modified managerial experience requirements, changes to yield recording requirements, and different regulations regarding how the loans can be used.  To encourage these changes that make loans more accessible to beginning farmers, formal comments on the farm bill proposal and these grants needed to be submitted by July 24. Visit regulations.gov to learn more.

Last year, Georgia Organics, a nonprofit that connects organic food from Georgia farms with Georgia families, received a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) grant, which provides funding to offer concrete educational and technical resources for starting farmers. Alice Rolls, Executive Director of the organization, which has a community of over 1,200 members, notes that the grant was crucial, and allowed Georgia Organics to expand their video program, which posts videos for beginning farmers about everything from harvesting sweet potatoes to running a hog farm. “The videos are some of the most watched in the history of our organization. Farmers are expanding and modifying their operations using our online material as a source,” she said.

For beginning and young farmers, Georgia Organics provides a system of support in many forms–like the instructional video series and a mentoring program–for farmers and ranchers operating or pursuing sustainable and organic farming enterprises in Georgia and the southeast. Following the USDA grant, Rolls notes, “We have been getting feedback that we are having a strong direct impact. This has taken it to a whole new level.”

As more young and beginning farmers enter the agricultural system, we should see an increasingly diverse farmer population that is more representative of the American people. But it is only with government programs geared towards smaller start-ups that these farms will turn a profit.

For information about funding available to beginning farmers, visit the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Competitive Grants Program website.  The National Young Farmer’s Coalition is building up their advocacy efforts and coordinating an effort to bring together the voices of beginning and young farmers around the country for their Speakers’ Bureau. It will help the voices of farmers reach the press and elected officials. Join this group of activists here.

Photo: Gardening in summer, by Shutterstock

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