Op-ed: 4 Ways the Next Farm Bill Can Help Beginning Farmers | Civil Eats

Op-ed: Beginning Farmers Are at a Crossroads. Here’s How the Next Farm Bill Can Help.

From supporting education to providing funding opportunities, the massive legislative package can ensure a more just, inclusive farm landscape.

a young farmer working alone in the field hoping for help from the next farm bill

April Prusia’s 78-acre heritage hog operation in the Driftless region of Wisconsin has benefited from two forms of financial support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In 2013, around the time she was getting the operation off the ground, Prusia secured a cost-share loan through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) that helped her install a system to divert water from the roof of the barn away from the barnyard. In addition to the environmental benefit of “keeping clean water clean,” she said the new system helped the barnyard stay drier. “It’s had a positive side effect, a healthier environment for the animals,” she said.

Around 2018, Prusia received a second federal loan, this time from the Farm Service Agency (FSA), specifically geared toward women and minority producers. With this money, she bought an additional 28 acres on which to grow hay for bedding and feed for the pigs. “It allowed me to triple the size of my operation and have healthier animals—they’re up on pasture [on the new land],” she said.

Additionally, converting the additional parcel from an annual to a perennial cropping site has increased the amount of carbon sequestration happening, and she hears more songbirds. Together, these two pots of funding—both made available through the farm bill—helped Prusia establish and expand her farm.

Despite the existence of federal funds, however, Prusia is in a rare boat. According to the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), many new farmers don’t even know such funding exists.

Young and beginning farmers—those who have fewer than 10 years of professional experience—typically operate small-scale farms or those with less than $250,000 in annual income or fewer than 180 acres. BIPOC farmers often fall into the small-scale category as well.

The Farm Credit Administration, the leading loan program under the Farm Service Agency (FSA), reported that small-scale farmers made up just 44 percent of all loan grantees in 2020 even though they represent 90 percent of all farms in the nation. And yet, the definition of “small-scale” is problematic because it also includes hobby farms and other non-commercial operations that can have a diluting effect that prevents some farmers from receiving funds that might be targeted to their specific needs.

“A lot of new and beginning farmers are of a different mindset. We’re thinking more sustainably and regeneratively, thinking outside the monoculture box—about pasture, carbon sequestering, and perennial farming.”

In addition to trouble accessing loans, young, beginning, and historically marginalized farmers face a number of hurdles, the most pressing being a lack of access to secure land, according to NYFC, whose staff interviewed thousands of young, beginning, and BIPOC farmers from across the nation for its latest survey. Without access to land, many of those farmers rely on rented land or work within the confines of urban and suburban spaces.

Prusia has faced this challenge herself. “Having access to affordable land is huge,” she said. “Land prices have gone up substantially in the last 10 years, and there’s a lot of development pressure. Instead of land being used for farming, it is being used to build subdivisions and create urban sprawl.”

Additionally, first-generation farmers often face steep learning curves, and even second-generation farmers face challenges in the early stages of their careers.

With more than 40 percent of American farmland projected to change ownership by 2035, the next farm bill will determine who has access to farmland and technical support—and, therefore how resilient, just, and inclusive the farming landscape is.

The stopgap funding bill signed in November includes a one-year extension on the 2018 Farm Bill, which expired on September 30. As lawmakers deliberate over the bill next year, they will be deciding the shape of land stewardship and agriculture for the next generation—and they have the potential to fundamentally shape the composition of our food system.

“A lot of new and beginning farmers are of a different mindset,” Prusia said. “We’re thinking more sustainably and regeneratively, thinking outside the monoculture box—about pasture, carbon sequestering, and perennial farming. We have to do those things, or we don’t have much time on the earth.”

We’ve made a list of the legislative priorities for agriculture groups supporting young and beginning farmers, including NYFC, according to Climate Campaign Director Lotanna Obodozie.

Farmer-to-Farmer Education Act

Many beginning BIPOC farmers are skeptical of receiving direct training from the USDA due to decades of loan denial, documented discrimination, and a lack of outreach efforts. They would rather talk to farmers and ranchers in their own communities. However, this can place an unfair burden on more experienced farmers, who have their own operations to prioritize.

The bipartisan Farmer-to-Farmer Education Act proposes to compensate farmers who provide technical assistance and mentor to young, beginning, and BIPOC farmers in their communities.

Andrew Bahrenburg, former deputy director of American Farmland Trust (AFT), works with agricultural communities across the United States who stand to benefit from this type of program and believes in the practicality of farmer-to-farmer learning. AFT’s New England team conducted a survey of farmers participating in peer-to-peer training on subjects like reducing tillage and soil health and found that education had the potential to help more farmers adopt regenerative practices.

“The best soil health tests you can get out in the field are from farmers who have . . . experimented with implementing new practices,” Bahrenburg said.

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According to the survey, more than half of farmers receive technical assistance from people with whom they have existing relationships. Just one in five farmers prefer technical support from the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—the USDA’s soil health training and support program—over more localized sources.

Increasing financial support for farmer-mentors is important in the Midwest, says Rufus Haucke, an organic produce farmer in Wisconsin and the co-founder of Driftless Curiosity, a land-based learning nonprofit. He says he has also discovered opportunities for funding and technical assistance by joining farmer support groups such as the REAP Food Group.

“That’s how I found out about many of the grants that we ’ve applied for in the last couple of years,” Haucke said.

Increasing Land Access, Security, and Opportunities Act (LASO) 

Taking on too much debt as a beginning farmer can be counterproductive. Introduced in the American Rescue Plan in 2021, the Increasing Land Access, Capital, and Market Access Program is a USDA program designed to help bridge the gap. Last year, the program awarded $300 million in grants to “underserved” farmers involved in more than 50 projects across the United States.

The Increasing Land Access, Security, and Opportunities (LASO) Act would build on the work of the existing program by authorizing an additional $100 million for it every year.

One current grant recipient, the Black Belt Land Access Program, led by the Center for Heirs Property Preservation out of South Carolina, plans to use its money to build on its existing goals to strengthen the property rights of underserved farmers in Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama. And the African Alliance of Rhode Island, another recipient, will use its funding to establish the For Us, By Us initiative to support farmers of color in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts through training, mentorship, and financial advisement.

While some grantees, such as the Community Development Organization of Oregon and 2020 Farmers Cooperative are using these funds to directly purchase land they already operate on, many are building the infrastructure to build self-sufficiency beyond the confines of this particular USDA program.

In 2021, the American Rescue Plan, which was then updated by the Inflation Reduction Act, allocated over half a billion to the creation of this program. It also formed an independent equity commission to assess USDA programs more generally. The commission’s first report, released earlier this year, revealed that the USDA has much more work to do in ensuring land access and addressing “longstanding debt that is making it hard for farmers to keep farming.”

TemuAsyr Martin Bey, a land advocacy fellow with the NYFC, former executive director of the Compton Community Garden, and communications coordinator for the California Farmer Justice Collaborative, believes that land access, retention, and the transition of agricultural land are critical.

He’s hopeful that language from the LASO Act will make it into the final version of the farm bill because it would extend the valuable work of the existing program. The bill would also fund support for farmers in economically disadvantaged areas across the nation and encourage collaboration with tribal and state governments, nonprofits, and community organizations that can meet the needs of underserved farmers and communities—in both rural and urban contexts.

“We need something that can really facilitate the whole process,” said Martin Bey. “This is our number one priority because we have a program that really makes sense and really addresses the needs of farmers.”

The lead co-sponsors of the bill span both parties and wings of Congress, including Representatives Nikki Budzinski (D-Illinois), Zach Nunn (R-Iowa), Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut), Abigail Spanberger (D-Virginia), and Senator Tina Smith (D-Minnesota).

Small Farm Conservation Act

Proposed by Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), the Small Farm Conservation Act would establish a program for small-scale producers seeking EQIP funding and technical assistance to improve soil management and other practices that protect water quality. The Act would hire and train NRCS staff to be more attuned to the challenges that small-scale farmers face, as well as expedite the application process to improve success rates.

Beginning and young farmers often must choose between using conservation practices and getting their farms off the ground, NYFC points out.

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LaDonna Green is a Milwaukee-based community gardener and founder of an agricultural education organization called Growing Green Gardens LLC. She rents plots in several community gardens and Alice’s Garden Urban Farm in her city and offers training for aspiring land stewards. She says farmers like her would benefit greatly from an expedited process when applying for conservation funds.

“I felt overwhelmed,” says Green when talking about the paperwork she had to fill out to begin the application process for conservation funds during planting season. “This form that I printed was about 40 or 50 sheets of paper,” she recalls.

“The USDA is treating small urban farmers who may be growing on a 20-by-20-foot garden plot the same as someone who’s going on 150 acres,” Green added.

Office of Small Farms Establishment Act

Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) introduced the Office of Small Farms Establishment Act to address the concerns of farmers like Green. The act would create an Office of Small Farms within the USDA to provide targeted support for small-scale farmers and producers in the next farm bill.

“The time is now. Now it’s up to us to actually push the policy to hold institutions accountable.”

Booker is proposing that this office be embedded within the Farm Production and Conservation Service Business Center because it coordinates staff from the most farmer-facing agencies across the USDA—the FSA, which administers and distributes funds for most of the USDA loan programs, the NRCS, which provides funding for technical assistance, and the Risk Management Agency, which provides crop insurance among other related services.

While other departments also directly support farmers, these agencies collectively also have the most county offices across the nation. “These agencies have to be more responsive to farmers,” Bahrenburg said.

Although it will likely be months before the next farm bill is complete, new farmer advocates continue to call for more support for new farmers so Congress can meet the moment to build out a more resilient and equitable food system.

“The time is now,” Martin Bey said, pointing out that the result of the farm bill, like most omnibus legislation, is not going to be perfect. However, he added, there are many legislative opportunities that would support beginning farmers of all backgrounds from across the nation. “Now, it’s up to us to actually push the policy to hold institutions accountable,” he said.

This article was updated to correct the name of the senator from Minnesota.

Max Sano is a New York City-based reporter and a Master's candidate in the NYU Food Studies program. Read more >

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  1. Shad Dasher
    Dealing with Farm bill at hand, The Farm and Ranch communities need to look at the laws that certain EU countries have passed.
    Portugal has passed a law where the farmer has a bottom price for his or her product.
    It is base on production cost of the product grown or raised then a percentage is add to insure the farmer is making a fair wage to sustain his or her livelihood.
    In the USA, the cost of inputs and labor are forcing small and medium farms out of business.
    The prices of vegetables and fruits are the same as 50 to 60 years ago.
    The large grocery store chains do not wish to purchase regional product demand a 365 day supplier which in turn means international farmer/growers to supply them.
    The up coming H2A program will see a increase in labor cost . There is no farm can pay this hourly rate 14.66 and pick 6.00 per 1/2 bushel and survive.
    My opinion is in 10 years there will be no hand picked vegetables or fruits in the USA.
    As stated by the USDA , there are a numerous programs for beginning farmers and ranchers but if there is no profit they will fail.
    The EU countries have recognized that farmers and ranchers are sending their children to college and trade schools so that they can make decent wage.
    If the USA doesn't step up and protect the Farmer and rancher we will become reliant on other countries for our food.
    Year 2022 was the first time the USA imported more food than exported .
    We are on a down hill slide .

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