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What's in the new farm bill for beginning farmers?

Agriculture.com Staff 01/07/2008 @ 9:05am

There are exciting market opportunities for beginning farmers and ranchers in the new farm bill, but the current public policies required to support their entry are woefully inadequate, according to a report by the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. The future health and vitality of agriculture, the food system and rural communities depends on farm bill policies that encourage this next generation.

The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's beginning farmer initiative has received serious attention during the farm bill debate, with significant progress to date but significant work left to do by the House-Senate conference committee.

The average age of farmers and ranchers is increasing. USDA estimated that in 2004 about four percent of America's farmers were under 35 years of age, while nearly one-fourth were 65 years or older. The fastest growing cohort of farmers and ranchers are those 70 years or older, while the fastest declining is those 25 years old or younger.

Over the next two decades an estimated 400 million acres of U.S. agricultural land will be passed on to heirs or sold. USDA estimates that currently over one-third of farmland is owned by landowners over the age of 65.

Beginning farmers and ranchers face unique challenges. With comparatively less experience, financing for beginning farmers and ranchers can be especially difficult to obtain. In addition, the rising cost of farmland, driven in part by farm subsidies and the ethanol boom, can make it difficult for beginning farmers and ranchers to obtain land. Furthermore, given the non-traditional background of some emerging farmers and ranchers, there is a critical shortage of training and on-farm mentoring opportunities.

There are key differences between the beginning farmer and rancher provisions of the House and Senate versions of the farm bill that must be resolved during conference committee negotiations:

  • Both House and Senate versions of the farm bill contain lowered interest rates and better terms for Beginning Farmer and Rancher Down Payment Loans, a higher loan limit on direct operating and direct ownership loans, a revitalized conservation loan program with a preference for beginning farmers and ranchers, and a special set aside of conservation funds and a special higher cost share rate for beginning farmers and ranchers and socially disadvantaged farmers.
  • The House reauthorized the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program with $15 million in annual mandatory funding, while the Senate strengthened the authorizing language but only with an authorization of appropriations of up to $30 million a year.
  • The Senate authorized the exciting new Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account (IDA) Program with an authorization for appropriations of up to $10 million a year. The House bill does not include the IDA program.
  • The House bill includes a special incentive for owners of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land returning to production to rent or sell to beginning farmers and ranchers that are using sustainable grazing practices, resource-conserving cropping systems, or are transitioning to organic. The Senate version of the bill does not include this provision.

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