USDA matches landowners with beginning producers

May 21, 2010

Trying to spur some new blood in farming and ranching, USDA rolled out a program recently to encourage retiring landowners with land leaving the Conservation Reserve Program to sell or rent that land to a beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher.

The Transition Incentives Program (TIP) authorized $25 million under the 2008 farm bill to encourage a retiring farmer with land under contract in the Conservation Reserve Program to transition that land to a beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher. The program signup begins Monday.

“One of the concerns we have, and we’ve been talking about this across the country, is that the average age of farmers is 57, and we are all wondering who the next generation of Americans who are going to care for our working lands and produce the food and fiber that Americans need and people around the world,” said US- DA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan in a conference call on May 14.

According to USDA, a beginning farmer is someone who has not been a farmer or ranch owner for more than 10 years. A socially disadvantaged farmer is someone from an ethnic group whose members have [been]discriminated against in the past. Gender is not considered.

The incentive to participate in the program is that the retiring landowner is eligible to receive up to two years of additional CRP rental payments after the contract expires, provided the landowner begins transitioning the land to a beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher who is not a relative.

“I think this is a major step forward in our overall effort here at USDA to help out new or socially disadvantaged farmers, particularly those who want to start or expand their operation in a sustainable way,” Merrigan said.

Merrigan said the program is important because the 2008 farm bill also put a cap on CRP at 32 million acres while the department expects 4.4 million acres to expire this year. For a retiring farmer or landowner to participate, they have to have a CRP contract that is expiring.

“Frankly, with the cap, there are just going to be some of those acres that aren’t going to get back in, and so this is also, if people haven’t thought of this as an option before, it might be worth their while,” she said.

The land transitioned under TIP must return to production under “sustainable grazing or crop production methods,” Merrigan said. Doing so allows the beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer who takes over the land to enroll in the continuous CRP, the Conservation Stewardship Program or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Merrigan added the new farmer also could start working toward certification under the USDA organic program as well.

Doug Crabtree, a beginning Montana farmer, said he has already bought a CRP parcel and certified it organic, but would like to rent more land from some neighbors who are retiring to expand the operation so and his wife can farm full time. The added CRP payments should help encourage some neighbors to lease to him, Crabtree said.

Lawrence Tomah, a Native American cattle producer in Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University extension agent, said he and his wife both have farm and ranch backgrounds, but recently moved into a new area and are looking to grow their farm operation by partnering with a retiring farmer or rancher. “We’re looking to match up and try to find some other acres to grow our stocker operation,” he said.

Merrigan said taxpayers have spent a lot of money investing in CRP property over time so the land should be turned into production in a “sustainable” manner, under a definition used by the department. The beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer will have to create a conservation management plan for the land.

Organic certification or enrollment in one of USDA’s conservation programs helps support that effort.

USDA officials think a large number of people are going to be interested in the program, but it may be hard to get information both to farmers who may be considering retirement and beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers looking for land. Essentially retired and beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers are going to have to collaborate and pair up before heading to a local Farm Service Agency office to make this program work.

“If people are not matchmaking at the local level the way we have hoped, then we are going to have to go back to our drawing board and think of other ways to facilitate those arrangements,” Merrigan said. — Chris Clayton, DTN