USDA announced more than $18 million in grants to organizations across 24 states that will help beginning farmers and ranchers with the training and resources needed to run productive, sustainable farms. Under the Secretary's leadership since 2009, the USDA has driven a number of efforts meant to spur interest in agriculture and provide the necessary support to young, beginning and socially-disadvantaged producers. At the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said investing in beginning farmers, ranchers and producers is not only a smart investment, but one that is vital to our nation's national and economic security.
"In the past few decades, U.S. agriculture has become the second most productive sector of the American economy thanks to farmers adopting technology, reducing debt, and effectively managing risk," said Vilsack. "Last year, America's farmers, ranchers and producers achieved record farm income and record exports. To protect and sustain these successes, we must continue to build an agriculture industry diverse and successful enough to attract the smartest, hardest-working people in the nation. These grants will help beginning farmers and ranchers overcome the unique challenges they face and gain knowledge and skills that will help them become profitable and sustainable."
USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded the grants through its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) established through the 2008 Farm Bill. In his June 30, 2010 testimony before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry, the Secretary reminded Congress of the need to attract thousands of new producers in the coming years as American farmers and ranchers continue to age. Vilsack urged members of Congress to address this critical need when drafting a 2012 Food, Farm and Jobs bill. That legislation remains unfinished, while the current Farm Bill is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2012.
USDA makes BFRDP grants to organizations that implement education, training, technical assistance and outreach programs to help beginning farmers and ranchers, specifically those who have been farming or ranching for 10 years or fewer. At least 25 percent of the program's funding supports the needs of limited resource and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, as well as farm workers who want to get a start in farming and ranching.
In the first year of USDA's Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, three-year grants supported training for 5,000 beginning farmers and ranchers. In 2011, grants supported training for more than 38,000. For example, the Appalachian Sustainable Agricultural Project in Western North Carolina has directly assisted 865 farmers across 20 rural counties. Of the total participants, 46 percent were women. In addition, a group of seven organizations is working in rural communities in Arkansas and Oklahoma to educate, train, and foster mentorships for a variety of target groups, including military veterans. In the first year, the project created 32 mentorship opportunities and completed 12 internships with experienced farmers.
BFRDP will provide $18 million in funding this year, the fourth year of the program. Future funding is dependent on congressional reauthorization. For more information on the BFRDP program, and for a list of fiscal year 2012 awards, visit www.nifa.usda.gov.
Beginning farmers, by USDA definition, are individuals with 10 years or less experience operating farms. Beginning farmers are in all age ranges, racial and ethnic groups, and both male and female. Currently, 30 percent of principal operators of farms are 65 years old or more, while the average age of U.S. farmers has climbed from 54 in 1997 to 57 in 2007. Research by USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) finds that the two most common and important challenges faced by beginning farmers are (1) having the market opportunity to buy or rent suitable land and (2) having capital to acquire land of a large enough scale to be profitable.
BFRDP is just one tool to address these challenges, along with greater access to credit including a new microloan program, a new land contract guarantee program, risk management education for beginning and socially disadvantaged producers, and new online resources such as www.start2farm.gov and the Know Your Farmer Compass.
Since 2009, USDA has provided 128,000 loans to family farmers totaling more than $18 billion. Between 2009-2011, the number of loans to beginning farmers and ranchers climbed from 11,000 to 15,000. More than 40 percent of USDA's farm loans now go to beginning farmers, while over 50 percent of loans went to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers during the same time.
With expanded access to credit, USDA is helping a new generation of farmers sustain and build upon what is now the most productive period in history for American agriculture. To that end, in May the Secretary proposed a new microloan program to help small and family operations progress through their start-up years with needed resources, while building capacity, increasing equity, and eventually graduating to commercial credit. The microloan proposal allows producers to apply for loans of less than $35,000 using simplified and streamlined procedures. The goal of the microloan program is to better meet the credit needs of small farm operations while making more effective use of FSA resources.
The Land Contract Guarantee Program provides a valuable tool to transfer farm real estate to the next generation of farmers. Guarantees will be offered to the owner of a farm who wishes to sell real estate through a land contract to a beginning farmer or a farmer who is a member of a socially disadvantaged group. In January, the Secretary expanded the Land Contract Guarantee Program from six states to all 50 states.
USDA's Risk Management Agency supports crop insurance education and outreach in 47 states to beginning, small, and historically underserved farmers and ranchers. From October 2010 through September 2011, a total of 77,000 farmers and ranchers attended educational sessions or were reached by direct mailing with educational information.