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What’s at Stake: Beginning Farmers

October 2, 2012

Due to Congressional inaction, the 2008 Farm Bill has expired without a new bill or extension to take its place.  In the absence of a farm bill, numerous innovative programs that invest in sustainable agriculture systems are shut down and left without funding.  This is the first post in our 10-week “What’s at Stake?” series that highlights expired farm bill programs and what that means for farmers and communities throughout the country. 

Land access is one of the most significant barriers facing beginning farmers.
Photo credit: Land For Good

Access to land is one of the most significant barriers that many aspiring farmers face when deciding whether or not to farm.  At the same time, retiring farmers often struggle to successfully transfer their family farm to the next generation and ensure the land remains in agriculture.

Land for Good is a non-profit organization based in New Hampshire that works on land access and farm transition issues throughout New England.  They work with aspiring farmers seeking land to start their own farms, farm families looking to retire and transition ownership of their land, and non-farmer landowners who are interested in leasing their land to new farmers.  Over the past four years, Land for Good has helped hundreds of farm families keep thousands of acres of farmland working and cared for.

“Two out of three farms will likely change hands in the next 20 years, and 90 percent do not have an exit plan. Farms are at greatest risk during transition,” says Kathy Ruhf, who’s working with farmers on the ground to address issues of land access, farm transfer, and land tenure.

In 2011, Land for Good launched the Land Access Project, with help from a grant funded through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).  Over the past year alone, they have worked with over 60 partners in the region to connect aspiring farmers with landowners through improved land-linking programs, help them make sound land acquisition choices through educational workshops, and increase the number of retiring farm families prepared to transfer land to the next generation by coaching them through succession planning.

“The Land Access Project is focused on beginning farmers or farm seekers,” Ruhf continues.  “It’s not just about preserving land but about providing active economic opportunity for young farm families.”

BFRDP has allowed this young non-profit to expand its reach and scale up its impact on making more land available and affordable for the next generation of farmers.

How BFRDP Grows New Farmers

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) is the only federal program exclusively dedicated to training the next generation of farmers and ranchers. This highly successful initiative provides competitively awarded grants to academic institutions, state extension services, producer groups, and community organizations to support and train new producers across the country.

Agriculture is a vibrant sector of our nation’s economy, yet high barriers to entry make farming and ranching one of the hardest careers to pursue.  The number of people entering agriculture has been slowly declining each year, and as of 2007, beginning farmers (or those farming for less than 10 years) made up only a quarter of all farmers in the U.S.  As a result, the average American farmer is now 57-years-old, and farm operators that are 65 years and older make up the fastest growing group of farmers.

Despite significant hurdles, there are dedicated people who see great opportunities in agriculture today and want to start their own farm or ranch businesses.

New farmers that are entering agriculture today have different needs and face new challenges compared with farmers who started farming decades ago and are now facing retirement.  Beginning farmers are younger on average, and less likely to farm full-time than more established farmers.  They also tend to operate smaller farms, have more diversified operations, and an increasing number come from non-farm backgrounds with little access to farmland, which has traditionally been passed down from generation to generation.

BFRDP addresses these barriers by supporting increased technical assistance, innovative farm training programs, and additional new farmer resources to help ensure the success of the next generation of farmers – a generation that faces unprecedented challenges when pursuing a career in agriculture.

Examples of Successful BFRDP Projects

Although BFRDP has only been around for a few years, young farming communities around the country are already seeing real impacts on the ground.  Over the past four years, BFRDP has invested over $70 million to develop and strengthen innovative new farmer training programs and resources across the country, and has funded 145 projects in 46 states.

A few program highlights include the following projects:

  • In California, BFRDP is helping develop several organic incubator farms that will help generate entrepreneurial opportunities for farm workers and limited resource farmers in the Salinas Valley.
  • In Iowa, BFRDP supports farm transition planning courses aimed at women landowners and farmers who own nearly half of the farmland in the United States today.
  • In Minnesota, BFRDP funding has allowed a community-based, farm-membership organization to expand a new farmer training curriculum collaborative which has now been adopted in 12 states across the country.
  • In Michigan, BFRDP helps establish local and regional networks of new and established farmers that provide mentoring opportunities and facilitate knowledge transfer between one generation of producers and the next.
  • In Maine, BFRDP funding provides an established new farmer training and mentorship program to expand in order to meet the growing demand for organic and sustainably produced food throughout the state.
  • In Wyoming, BFRDP is targeting beginning ranchers with classroom and hands-on applied learning on-ranch training course to improve management and financial skills and work with and learn from established ranchers.

Program Funding

BFRDP was first authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill but, despite multiple campaigns by NSAC and other interested farm groups, did not receive any funding through the annual appropriations process.  In response, the Agriculture Committees provided $75 million in direct farm bill funding for the program as part of the 2008 Farm Bill.  Roughly $19 million is available each year to fund new and continuing projects.  As of October 1, however, that funding and program authorization officially expired, leaving the future of the program and training for the next generation of farmers in a very precarious position.  New grants made in FY12 and multi-year continuation grants will not be impacted by the expired farm bill, but USDA will be unable to make any new grants until the program is reauthorized.

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives took action to fund BFRDP in their versions of the 2012 Farm Bill.  The Senate-passed farm bill provides $17 million per year to fund BFRDP through 2017, a cut of about 10 percent, and the House Committee-passed bill provides $10 million per year, which is almost a 50 percent reduction in annual funding levels.  NSAC continues to press for a $20 million per year outcome in the final farm bill.

Given the pressing need for new producers to ensure the continued productivity of America’s farms, ranches, and rural communities, cutting funding for this successful program now would significantly undermine the progress made since the last farm bill to expand the opportunities for new farmers to start successful farm and ranch businesses.

What’s Next for the Beginning Farmer Program?

As of Monday, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, along with several other innovative research and rural development programs, has now officially expired with the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill.  Congress clearly understands the importance of this program, as both the House and Senate include funding for BFRDP in their draft farm bills, albeit at decreased levels.  Unfortunately, despite the widespread support for this program across the country and within Congress, lawmakers have been sidetracked with election-year politics, and have left our country’s new farmers high and dry as they packed up shop and left town until November.

Due to Congressional inaction, the modest gains we’ve made in reversing the aging of America’s farmers – thanks in large part to organizations and projects supported through BFRDP – are at risk of being wiped out as this program is put on hold indefinitely and funding sources dry up.

What does this mean for those new entrepreneurs that will farm and ranch our nation’s land in the future?

Quite simply it means they’ll have a tougher time getting started and will be less likely to start and maintain a successful farming business in the long run.  This means our country’s farmers will continue to age, and will have a harder time finding someone to pass their farm onto.  Ultimately, this leads to the consolidation of farmland, fewer people farming the land, and dwindling economic opportunities in rural America.

Unfortunately, there are real consequences to Congress’s decision to allow the farm bill to expire.  We need to make sure that lawmakers hear this loud and clear when they return to work in November, and that they get back on track and get a farm bill or short-term extension that explicitly provides continued funding for BFRDP passed this year.

To find out when to take action in support of beginning farmers, sign up for NSAC’s action alerts!

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Farm Bill, Grants and Programs, Research, Education & Extension

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