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New USDA website aims to get young Americans 'back to the land'

AgricultureConservationFinanceU.S. Congress
Access to land and capital are two biggest hurdles young farmers face. USDA offers help on new website
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Concerned by the aging population of U.S. farmers, USDA launches programs to attract new generation

Faced with daunting financial challenges, new farmers are getting some help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The department said at a UC Davis conference Monday that it has launched a new website that focuses on the specific needs of beginning farmers and ranchers.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this post said the new website is financed by the 2014 Farm Bill. It is not. The Farm Bill financed the USDA's policy changes to help new farmers.

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It said it also will waive various enrollment and service fees and introduce adjusted risk management tools on the site to help increase the financial security of new farmers.

The site, www.usda.gov/newfarmers, is aimed at attracting and educating a new generation of farmers to an old American industry that is experiencing a "renaissance," said USDA deputy secretary Krysta Harden.

Half of all current farmers in the U.S. are likely to retire in the next decade, the USDA said, noting that the average American farmer is white, male and almost 60 years old.

“The aging of our farmers is a chronic problem,” Harden told the Los Angeles Times. “Enlisting and supporting new farmers is essential to the future of family farms and the farm economy.”

Harden called the website a “one-stop shop” for beginning and young farmers to learn about USDA services and resources to starting a farm. The site offers resources advising new farmers on how to get loans, raise capital, find land and enter a difficult industry. 

April Mackie, 34, has been on California farmland her whole life. She grew up on a family farm and now works for a large-scale strawberry and vegetable farm in the Salinas Valley. She said young California farmers face different challenges from other farmers across the U.S., given the state’s diverse agricultural industry.

“Available land is minimal, the prices are extremely high and rental rates for agricultural property are unbelievable,” said Mackie, who also is on the American Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer and Rancher Committee.

In addition to buying land and equipment and learning how to access the market, Mackie said California farmers who operate large farms can shell out about $500,000 a year just to comply with state and federal regulations.

“California farmers face more state regulations than most other states,” said Mackie.

In 2011, the National Young Farmers Coalition reviewed 1,000 of the country’s young farmers and reported that USDA’s Farm Service Agency loan program was marred with problems. The organization found that new farmers often have little experience, are forced to rent land and, overall, don’t have the money needed to launch a successful farming career.

 “If Congress wants to keep America farming, then they must address the barriers that young people face in getting started,” said Lindsey Shute, director of the coalition. “We need credit opportunities for beginning and diversified farmers, land policies that keep farms affordable for full-time growers and funding for conservation programs.”

Shute said FSA loans take too long to process, and small loans are also too hard to come by.

“The $300,000 loan limit doesn’t go far in many real estate markets,” Shute explained.

Harden said the department is working on its loan program and is creating new loan programs to get young people, particularly women, “back to the land.”

“We know that farming is not seen as a profitable business, and that has kept people from returning back to their family farms,” Harden said. “We want to show young people that our agriculture industry is booming.”

By streamlining U.S. agricultural policies, loan programs, success stories and technical support in one place, the USDA said it hoped to ease the financial fears young people have about farming.

“When young people put in ‘new farmer’ in their search engines, we want to be the first thing that comes up,” Harden said.

 

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