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USDA Struggles to Spark Youth Interest in Farming

Courtesy the American Farm Bureau Federation
According to a recent annual survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest challenge young farmers face is the securing land.

There was some good news in the numbers — a 2 percent increase in the number of farmers between the ages of 25 and 34, an rise that appears puzzling at first glance, because the overall number of new farmers dropped.

But separate research by the USDA has estimated that the average beginning farmer in recent years is in his or her late 40s. The number of farmers who fall in that age range — between 35 and 54 years of age —dropped by 11 percent to 739,329 between 2007 and 2012.

The final census data, set for release May 2, will provide a more detailed look at what happened.

Vilsack has talked regularly about what he sees as a need to attract younger people into farming in order to rebuild what he called the “eroding middle” in agriculture and maintain the economic health of rural areas.

During President Barack Obama’s first term, the USDA launched a “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative that sought to promote small-scale farming and locally produced foods. And Krysta Harden, who took over last year as the department’s deputy secretary, has made it a priority to promote beginning farmer programs, including attending meetings where new farmers would be present.

Vilsack recently announced some key administrative changes to assist small-scale produce growers, while both the recently enacted farm bill (PL 113-79) and Obama’s proposed fiscal 2015 budget contain provisions expanding federal aid to beginning farmers.

The USDA will allow fruit and vegetable growers to apply for storage facility loans to build packing sheds and storage. These loans have previously been reserved for commodity grain bins. “That’s the real game changer,” said Hoefner.

The USDA’s Farm Service Agency sent a directive to its field offices this month, instructing them to waive an existing requirement that says loans for these facilities can’t be handed out unless recipients have crop insurance. The change will be particularly important as rules take effect under the Food Safety Modernization Act that will likely require upgrades to handling facilities.

The farm bill includes provisions that will:

Increase the premium subsidy for crop insurance policies by 10 percentage points.

Allow development of “whole farm” insurance policies for diversified farms, which small-scale produce farms typically are. Conventional policies cover a single crop.

Fund seven new farm-to-school coordinators in regional USDA offices to help connect schools with producers. In 2012, schools spent $355 million on local and regionally produced food.

The president’s proposed 2015 budget seeks a sharp increase in the number of low-interest loans the USDA can make to beginning farmers. Dwyer got started by borrowing $245,000 from the Farm Service Agency to buy his first equipment and cattle. The interest rate was “ridiculously low” at about 1 percent to 2 percent, he said.

An annual survey released by the American Farm Bureau Federation finds that young farmers between the ages of 18 and 35 say securing land is the biggest obstacle they face. The AFBF surveyed members of its Young Farmers & Ranchers Program and 22 percent said that finding adequate land was their primary challenge.

The young farmers also had other concerns: 12 percent said those included bureaucratic red tape, 9 percent the availability of labor, and 9 percent water availability and the urbanization of land.

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