Direct and Guaranteed Farm Loans

Important Update:

Please note that the Grassroots Guide has not yet been updated to reflect changes made by the 2018 Farm Bill, which was passed and signed into law in December 2018. We are in the process of updating the Guide and expect to publish an updated version in the spring of 2019. In the meantime, please use this guide for basic information about programs and important resources and links for more information, but check with USDA for any relevant program changes made by the 2018 Farm Bill. Also, check out our blog series covering highlights from the new farm bill. 

Providing loans to family farmers and ranchers to purchase land and assets or finance annual operating expenses

For many farmers just starting out, access to credit is a make-or-break issue that will largely determine whether or not they decide to pursue a successful career in agriculture. Due to dramatic changes in legislative direction in the early 1990s championed by NSAC, USDA credit resources are now aimed very significantly at beginning farmers. Direct and guaranteed farm loans provide a crucial source of capital for beginning farmers and others not well served by commercial credit. Launching the next generation of farmers requires a commitment to providing capital for the purchase of farmland, equipment, and other necessities required to start a successful farm business.

Learn More About Direct and Guaranteed Farm Loans!

Program Basics

USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) provides direct and guaranteed farm ownership and operating loans for farmers and ranchers of all kinds. Direct loans are made by FSA. Guaranteed loans are made by banks, credit unions, community development financial institutions (CDFIs), or other lenders, with a guarantee against significant loss of principal or interest on a loan made by FSA.

Percentages of both direct and guaranteed farm ownership and operating loans are targeted to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers through loan set-asides.

Loan Purposes – Direct and guaranteed farm ownership loans can be used to purchase farmland, construct or repair buildings, or promote soil and water conservation. Direct and guaranteed operating loans can be used to purchase livestock, farm equipment, feed, seed, fuel, insurance or other operating expenses. Operating loans can also be used to pay for minor improvements to buildings, costs associated with land and water development, and to refinance debts under certain conditions.

Loan Terms – Repayment terms and interest rates vary according to the type of loan made, but operating loans are normally repaid within seven years and farm ownership loans cannot exceed forty years. Interest rates are calculated monthly, and are the lowest rates in effect at the time of loan approval or loan closing. You can find the current interest rates on the FSA website. The maximum loan amount a farmer can receive for a direct operating or ownership loans is $300,000 and for a guaranteed loan is a combined limit of $1.399 million (2016), a rate adjusted for inflation each year.


To be eligible for a direct loan from FSA, a farmer must demonstrate sufficient education, training, and experience in managing or operating a farm. For all direct farm ownership loans, an applicant must have participated in the operation of a farm or ranch for at least 3 out of the past 10 years, but there is some discretion for FSA to consider less than three years depending on the type of management experience the farmer has.

Applicants for direct and guaranteed farm loans must be unable to obtain credit elsewhere and have an acceptable credit history. Direct and guaranteed loan borrowers must also be the operator or tenant operator of a farm that is not larger than a “family farm” after the loan is closed. A family farm is defined as one in which all of the management and a substantial amount of the total labor is provided by the farm family. All borrowers have to comply with highly erodible land and wetland conservation cross-compliance farm bill requirements.

An applicant who applies for direct loan assistance must be a beginning farmer, one who has never received a direct loan, or one who has not had a direct loan outstanding for more than the term limits allowed (10 years for direct ownership and 7 years for direct operating). Additionally, the loan recipient must be able to repay and to provide enough collateral to secure the loan on at least a dollar-for-dollar basis, and use the loan for authorized purposes.

The Program in Action

Over past 75 years, FSA has provided over $60 billion in loan funding to farmers through its direct loan program and has guaranteed over $59 billion in additional loan capital. This translates to over 3.7 million loans made to farmers and ranchers in all 50 states as a result of federal FSA loan programs.

Here are some examples of how farmers across the country have used and benefitted from FSA farm loans:

  • Unable to get financing through their bank, farmers in Minnesota used FSA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Loans to purchase land and build a barn with a root-storage facility. The addition of a root-storage facility allows them to expand sales to local restaurants and colleges during the winter when demand from these institutions is high and farm production is low.
  • A beginning farmer working with a bank in Iowa obtained a 95-percent loan guarantee for an ownership loan and operating loan made in conjunction with an FSA down payment loan, enabling the bank to make a loan it would not have made without the federal guarantee, while also lowering the interest rate for the beginning farmer.
  • A couple in Kentucky used a direct loan to expand their small blueberry operation by branching out into plant propagation for selling, expanding their on-farm beekeeping colonies, and establishing other mixed berries into their existing fields.
  • A rancher in California used a guaranteed loan to buy stock in a newly formed marketing cooperative that processes and sells specially raised beef to Japan.
  • A commercial lender in Ohio obtained an FSA guarantee on an operating loan to a farmer who planned to use integrated pest management (IPM) on a new agricultural enterprise. The guarantee was important to the lender, who was unfamiliar with IPM.

How to Apply and Program Resources

USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) administers the direct and guaranteed loan programs, but farmers apply for direct loans through FSA directly and for guaranteed loans through their local bank, credit union, CDFI, or other private lending institution.

Direct loan application forms are available online but farmers must apply for direct loan assistance in person at an FSA county office or USDA Service Center. FSA officials will meet with the applicant to assess all aspects of the proposed or existing farming or ranching operation to determine if the applicant meets the eligibility requirements. All borrowers who are approved to receive a direct loan from FSA are required to attend borrower training, which typically consists of a classroom type workshop on financial management. More information on borrower training options and the loan application process is available at FSA county offices.

Farmers apply for guaranteed loans as they normally would with local commercial lenders that make agricultural loans in their community. The lender analyzes the farmer’s business plan and financial condition. If the farm loan proposal looks realistic, is financially feasible, and there is sufficient collateral, but it cannot be approved because it does not meet the lending institution’s loan underwriting standards, the lender may apply for an FSA loan guarantee.

In some cases, farmers may seek an FSA direct loan first, but a guaranteed loan must always be considered before a direct loan can be provided. Once an applicant provides all the financial and organizational information to the lender, the lender submits a guaranteed loan application to the local FSA office and the request will be approved or disapproved within 30 days after receipt of a complete application.

The number of guaranteed loans that FSA can provide each year varies depending on the demand for loan guarantees and the amount of guarantee authority approved by Congress.

Additional information about both of these programs is posted on the FSA website, under Farm Loan Programs, as well as in FSA’s Guide to FSA Farm Loans, available for free download.

For information and applications, go to your FSA regional Service Centers or to your state FSA office. You can also locate all of the contact information by clicking on your state on the FSA’s Service Center Locator.

Read about the latest news about farm loan programs on our blog!

Program History, Funding, and Farm Bill Changes 

FSA Direct and Guaranteed Farm Loans were first created in the 1933 and 1980 Farm Bills respectively. Since then, both programs have undergone significant changes. Most recently, the 2008 Farm Bill increased the per farm loan limit for direct operating and farm ownership loans from $200,000 to $300,000 to reflect the higher annual costs associated with farming today.  The loan limit for guaranteed loans did not change, remaining at a combined limit of $1,355,000 (2014), a rate adjusted for inflation each year.  The 2008 Farm Bill also increased the authorized funding level for direct loans, but not for guaranteed loans, and directed FSA to develop a plan that will promote the goal of transitioning borrowers from direct to guaranteed credit and from guaranteed to regular commercial credit in the shortest amount of time possible.

The 2014 Farm Bill made several modifications to FSA farm loan programs, including eliminating the term limits (i.e., limits on the number of years a borrower may receive loans) on guaranteed loans, although existing limits on direct loans remain unchanged. The 2014 Farm Bill also gives additional flexibility for FSA to consider fewer than three years of farm management experience in order for a farmer to qualify for a direct farm ownership loan and clarifies that the average (not median) size farm in a borrower’s county shall be used to determine loan eligibility status. Additionally, the new farm bill directs FSA to take steps to collect data on local food markets in order to determine valuation and unit prices for local food products. There were also several changes made to the microloan, conservation loan, and down payment loan programs.

FSA loan programs are funded through the annual agriculture appropriations bill. The 2008 Farm Bill increased the authorization for appropriations for direct operating loans from $565 million a year to $850 million a year, and for direct ownership loans from $205 million to $350 million, but the most recent farm bill left these levels unchanged despite the fact that actual appropriations in recent years have been far higher than these authorized levels. The actual amount available each year for direct and guaranteed loans depends on funding levels contained in the annual agricultural appropriations bill.

Historical Funding Levels for FSA Direct and Guaranteed Loans

Fiscal Year Total Funding (millions)
Direct Ownership Guaranteed Ownership Direct Operating Guaranteed Operating
2013 $439 $1,385 $967 $1,385
2014 $575 $2,000 $1,196 $1,500
2015 $1,500 $2,000 $1,252 $1,393
2016 $1,500 $2,000 $1,252 $1,393
2017 $1,500 $2,750 $1,530 $1,960

For the most current information on program funding levels, please see NSAC’s Annual Appropriations Chart”  

Authorizing Language

Section 5001 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 amends Section 302(b)(1) of the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act, to be codified at 7 U.S.C. Section 1922(b)(1), to increase flexibility in the farm management requirements for Direct Farm Ownership Loans.

Section 5104 of the Agricultural Act amends Section 311(c) of the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act, to be codified at 7 U.S.C. Section 1941(c), to eliminate term limits on guaranteed loans.

Section 5105 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 amends Section 312 of the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act, to be codified at 7 U.S.C. Section 1942, to include provisions on lending to borrowers serving local food markets.

Section 5303 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 amends Section 343(a)(11)(F) of the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act, to be codified at a note to 7 U.S.C. Section 1991(a)(11)(F), to modify the definition of a qualified beginning farmer.

Last updated in October 2016.