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What’s at Stake: Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers

September 13, 2018


Navy veteran and beginning farmer Angela Ipock points out the location of her CA farm on a visit to Representative Jim Costa’s (D-CA) office during an NSAC farmer fly-in. Photo credit: Reana Kovalcik.

Editor’s Note: The 2014 Farm Bill expires on September 30th. If the next farm bill is not finalized before that date, numerous “tiny but mighty” farm bill programs that support family farmers and food-producing communities will effectively shut down in terms of new funding and grant opportunities for fiscal year 2019. These workhorse programs, which have small price tags but big impacts, touch nearly every part of the American food and farm sectors. This is the third post of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s “What’s at Stake?” series, which highlights soon-to-expire farm bill programs and details what their absence could mean for farmers and communities nationwide. 

Over the past 15 years, farmland inflation rates have increased by nearly 150 percent – not surprisingly, the number of people entering agriculture has moved in the converse direction, steadily declining year after year. As of 2012, beginning farmers made up only a quarter of all farmers in the U.S. With the average age of an American farmer approaching 60 years and 100 million acres of farmland set to change hands over the next five years, a potential nationwide shortage of farmers should be one of the primary problems Congress seeks to resolve in the upcoming farm bill.

Beginning farmers aren’t the only ones struggling with increasingly high land prices and overall lack of access to resources, however. For many farmers of color and military veteran farmers, those barriers can be even more pronounced and difficult to overcome.

Historically, these farmers have been among the most chronically underserved by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs. This disparity disadvantages not only the farmers themselves, but also stifles the growth and prosperity of rural communities and hurts our national economy.

Fortunately, the past several farm bills have included programs that are better preparing and cultivating the next generation of farmers, as well as working to help farmers overcome historic inequities. The next farm bill should be an opportunity to continue building on the success of these programs, especially considering the glaring need to help more farmers achieve success.

Unfortunately, two key programs doing this work – the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers (also known as the 2501 Program) – are at risk of shuttering to new proposals at the end of the month. To avoid this, Congress must renew program funding before October 1, either in the next farm bill or in a farm bill extension should the farm bill not pass on time. A “clean” farm bill extension with no new funding would not suffice. In this third post of our “What’s at Stake: Tiny but Mighty Programs” series, we highlight the impact BFRDP and 2501 have made, and what we risk losing if these programs cease to operate.

How the Farm Bill Supports Beginning Farmers

Farmers and ranchers entering agriculture today are faced with a very different agricultural industry than the one that previous generations knew. For example, today’s beginning farmers operate smaller farms, have more diversified operations, and are less likely to farm full-time than their forebears. They also increasingly come from non-farm backgrounds with little access to farmland, which makes support with training and land access of critical importance.

To address the changing needs of this latest generation of producers, increasing numbers of new farmer training programs and projects have emerged over the past decade. Many of these projects, the aim of which is to arm aspiring and beginning producers with the skills the need to succeed, were made possible thanks to support from BFRDP.

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) member, the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA), started as a training initiative in 2010 with support from a BFRDP developmental grant. Once they were up and running, DGA then leveraged two standard three-year BFRDP grants in 2011 and 2015 to help them get fully established. Today, DGA is a nonprofit organization with a National Apprenticeship registered under the U.S. Department of Labor-Employment and Training Administration.

DGA was created to address the steep decline in small- and medium-sized dairy operations, and the difficulty for new farmers to get started in such a cost intensive industry. Their work focuses on a managed-grazing model of production, which is less capital intensive, more environmentally beneficial, and often more lucrative due to current consumer demand for organic and grass-based dairy products. BFRDP funding has been essential to DGA’s growth, providing an investment that was both reliable and large enough to support their national efforts.

According to a 2017 evaluation of BFRDP led by NSAC, over the last ten years that the program has been in action, BFRDP has proven to be instrumental in building a national infrastructure, new models, and best practices to train and support new farmers. Over the last decade, BFRDP has invested roughly $150 million in over 250 new farmer-training projects across the country.

Although demand for training and resources for beginning farmers has increased significantly since the 2014 Farm Bill (applications have increased by 40 percent), funding has remained flat since the program’s creation in 2002. Even after veterans were added to BFRDP, which substantially increased the number of producers the program was tasked with supporting, Congress provided no additional funding. Since 2014, BFRDP has only been able to fund 22 percent of all proposals submitted; two out of every three proposals recommended for funding are rejected. To date, BFRDP remains the only federal program whose mission is to explicitly train the next generation of farmers.

How the Farm Bill Advances Resource Equity

In addition to creating opportunities for the next generation, it’s also imperative to ensure that farmers in all corners of the country have equitable access to federal resources. Agriculture in our country is becoming increasingly diverse, more people of color are entering or returning to agriculture, and military veterans are also increasingly seeking opportunities for new beginnings in the field.

Historically, farmers of color and military veterans have had inadequate access to and less than average rates of participation in programs administered by USDA. These disparities have existed for a number of reasons, including inadequate outreach to these communities by USDA, and institutional discrimination.

In order to better serve farmers of color, Congress created the Section 2501 program nearly 30 years ago. It added veteran farmers to the program’s mission in the 2014 Farm Bill. USDA’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach (OAO) administers the 2501 program, which helps to ensure that historically underserved producers have equitable access to the information, programs, and opportunities that will help them to find success in agriculture.

Angela Ipock, a Latina farmer and military veteran from California, dreamed of farming after she retired from the Navy. In 2016, Angela returned home and started Neverending Sunshine Farm. She received early technical assistance and veteran-specific support funded by the Section 2501 program from the Farmer-Veteran Coalition (an NSAC member organization), which was instrumental to her successful start in agriculture.

“I’ve seen how veterans benefit from this holistic approach to healing,” said Angela in an interview with NSAC. “For me, farming is about continuing service to my community and to my nation, about finding your humanity again. This also leaves a legacy behind for my children. And if [farming] worked for me, if it helped me overcome my difficulties with PTSD, depression, anxiety, and anything else like that, then I know I’m doing it right.”

What’s Next for Beginning, Minority, and Veteran Farmers?

With the first meeting of the official Farm Bill Conference Committee now completed, Congress has little time left to resolve the many differences that exist between the House and Senate draft farm bills. While the two bills both contain funding for BFRDP and 2501, the Senate bill increases support and does so in a way that ensures the long-term viability of both programs.

The House bill maintains each program in its current form and simply reauthorizes existing funding levels for another five years. In contrast, the Senate bill makes historic investments in future generations by creating the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) program, which streamlines existing efforts to support beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers, while also permanently protecting these important resources for generations to come.

The Senate’s FOTO program combines and strengthens our two tiny but mighty beginning and socially disadvantaged farmer programs: BFRDP and Section 2501. The new program addresses the challenges these farmers face in accessing land, building skills, managing risk and financial security, and investing in conservation. If enacted, FOTO would ensure that the 2018 Farm Bill is truly a farm bill for the future.

Last week, 53 members of Congress – led by Representatives Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) and Sanford Bishop (D-GA), sent a letter to Farm Bill Conferees in support of the Senate’s FOTO provision being included in the final conferenced version of the 2018 Farm Bill. NSAC applauds these champions of our nation’s farmers and also urges conferees to adopt the Senate language.

With only 6 legislative days left to pass a new farm bill on time, it’s becoming increasingly likely that the 2014 Farm Bill will need to be temporarily extended. Tiny but mighty programs like BFRDP and 2501 don’t just automatically continue, however, because they lack “baseline” (aka permanent) funding. As many remember all too well, these programs and many others shut down when the last farm bill was delayed to devastating effect. We cannot let that happen again.

NSAC will be working with our allies and Congressional champions to ensure that essential resources for our nation’s farmers remain intact as part of any final farm bill or short-term extension. Stay tuned for our next post in this series, which delves into key rural development programs that support value-added and rural businesses.


Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Farm Bill


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