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46067

Young farmers seek voice in next farm bill

For years, farmers who belong to membership organizations and commodity groups have flown to Washington to lobby for their favorite causes. This week, a group 18 beginning farmers and ranchers and their supporters are telling members of Congress that they, too, would like some modest help from the next farm bill.

Stephen Houston, a 31-year-old farmer who grows 230 acres of cotton, peanuts and wheat on rented ground near Donalsonville, Georgia, thinks tougher payment limits in the current farm bill might help beginners.

Using the three-entity rule that allows one farmer to have an interest in three businesses that get payments has allowed neighboring farms to grow so much that Houston has a tough time finding land to rent.

"Basically, you've got a few people that just get greedy," Houston told Agriculture Online this week. When land comes up for rent, "you can't really outbid them."

Houston was among farmers working with the national Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and several state groups to convince members of Congress that more needs to be done to encourage a new generation of producers.

Brad Hodgson, of Fountain, Minnesota, and his wife raise grass-finished beef on 100 acres they own near the southeastern Minnesota community, finds that he's also competing with rural homeowners in the same tight land market. One farming neighbor recently sold off a 10-acre parcel for $100,000 that will be developed for rural residences.

"It's nice country but it's a shame to see a house put on it because you can never do anything with it again" for farming, said Hodgson, who is 36.

Compared to the Midwest and Southeast, 30-year-old Miguel Martinez of Salinas, California face a really daunting farm real estate market. He and his father farm 33 acres of strawberries and organic vegetables in an area where conventional produce ground rents for $1,400 an acre and certified organic land brings $2,000 an acre in annual rental fees.

Martinez recently got a USDA loan to buy 10 acres, but the 8% interest rate seems high and he would like to see lower rates for farmers who are starting out.

The Sustainable Ag group agrees. It proposes setting farm ownership loan interest rates from the USDA Farm Service Agency at four percentage points below the regular rate, or at one percent, whichever is greater. The group would also like to see more cost sharing for conservation programs for beginning farmers, an Extension program that would provide mentoring and outreach to young farmers, and continuing preference to young farmers when USDA-acquired land is sold to the public. It also would like to new Individual Development Accounts set up for young farmers. Through that program, FSA would match beginning farmer savings accounts that could be used to buy land, buildings, equipment and livestock.

The group already favors payment limitation reform that might help farmers like Stephen Houston find a fairer rental land market.

For years, farmers who belong to membership organizations and commodity groups have flown to Washington to lobby for their favorite causes. This week, a group 18 beginning farmers and ranchers and their supporters are telling members of Congress that they, too, would like some modest help from the next farm bill.

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