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Message to Secretary Veneman: Make beginning farmers and ranchers a priority

Agriculture.com Staff 07/07/2010 @ 9:08am

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a number of advisory committees that bring real-world suggestions to its agencies. Most of the time they work in relative obscurity, offering ideas on how to tweak regulations to make them more farmer-friendly.

The Agriculture Secretary's Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers has done that and its members can see progress at several agencies that now pay more attention to the needs of startup producers than in the past.

Still, the trend toward fewer young farmers and ranchers seems overwhelming and largely unaffected by any bureaucratic changes at USDA.

"The number of people getting into farming is continuing to decline and the interest in getting into farming is continuing to decline because people don't think it's possible," says Marion Bowlan, a central Pennsylvania farmer who knows how difficult it is to cash-flow a start-up farm with today's high land costs.

Bowlan, who also runs a service for beginners called Pennsylvania Farm Link, is one of 20 members on the beginning farmer advisory group. She's please that the group is asking Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman to make serving beginning producers a top priority.

Last month the group's chairman, David Wirth of the Illinois Farm Development Authority, wrote Veneman with this "overarching recommendation" that she:

"develop and implement a mission focus to heighten awareness and coordinate beginning farmer and rancher opportunities, including a departmental policy statement that establishes measurable goals and objectives for USDA and each of its mission areas."

Bowlan thinks it's important that USDA try to measure the success or failure of its beginning farming programs. It already targets most of its funds for direct loans from the Farm Service Agency to beginners. And Bowlan credits the Natural Resources and Conservation Service with taking steps to give priority to startup farmers and ranchers in its conservation programs. But, she'd like to see ways to measure whether USDA programs are making enough of a difference.

"Do they in fact meet the needs of beginning farmers and how many people use them," she asks.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a number of advisory committees that bring real-world suggestions to its agencies. Most of the time they work in relative obscurity, offering ideas on how to tweak regulations to make them more farmer-friendly.

Another committee member, Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in Washington, D.C., agrees that making young farmers and ranchers a top priority in the USDA may be the best way to make a difference.

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