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From combat to crops & cows

When Garrett Dwyer completed his tour of duty in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2008, he wanted to reactivate his ag business skills.

He attended the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis, where he learned to write a business plan. He also received a government-funded loan to purchase 125 head of cattle. Then he returned to his parents’ ranch near Bartlett.

A robust farm economy, coupled with booming ag exports, is attracting young farmers. Record-high land costs, however, remain a barrier to farmers like Dwyer.

“It can be difficult to get started,” he says. “Skyrocketing costs of buying or renting land make entry into farming and ranching a daunting task.”

Yet the future of U.S. agriculture hinges on a new generation’s ability to break into farming. USDA statistics show that for every farmer and rancher under the age of 25, five are 75 years or older.

That’s why USDA is expanding credit, training, and land access programs to help small farmers, beginning farmers, and returning veterans overcome start-up costs and lack of credit. Veterans like Dwyer are an untapped resource. Today, about 6.1 million veterans live in rural communities – a higher concentration than anywhere else in the U.S. About 45% of today’s returning veterans are from rural areas.

More than 40% of its farm loans go to beginning farmers. The latest tool in the USDA toolbox is the microloan, which is administered through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency Operating Loan Program. A microloan makes up to $35,000 available, and it features a simplified application that cuts paperwork in half.

Niche crops are a good option for many returning veterans who may be disabled. The microloan program is a new resource that covers initial start-up expenses, including hoop houses, essential tools, irrigation, delivery vehicles, annual seed, fertilizer, utility, rent, marketing, and distribution costs.

In 2012, The Kansas Farmers Union, The Center for Rural Affairs, AgrAbility, and the Farmer-Veteran Coalition used USDA risk-management funds to host several specialty crop tours for veterans.

Convoy of programs

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), created by the 2008 Farm Bill, supports educational training, technical assistance, and outreach programs tailored to returning veterans. Future funding is contingent on congressional reauthorization.

“The BFRDP is the only federal program focused on training new farmers,” says Juli Obudzinski of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Colleges and universities have tapped BFRDP to develop internships, workshops, and online courses for veterans.

The new Land Contract Guarantee Program provides guarantees to an owner using a land contract to sell to a beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer.

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