Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2013 introduced in Congress
According to the 2011 U.S. Census, there are 311,591,917 people living in the U.S. Of that population, less than 1 percent claim farming as an occupation (and about 2 percent actually live on farms).
Along with the growing U.S. population, the average age of farmers is also on the rise. In 1945, the average age of a farmer was 39, but in 2012, it was 57. In fact, 40 percent of the farmers today are over the age of 55.
With the growing challenges in the ag business, fewer and fewer new or younger farmers are finding their way back. But some lawmakers are hoping that newly introduced legislation will turn the trend around, helping to increase the farming population.
The legislation, designed to help the next generation of farmers and ranchers create jobs and other economic activity in rural communities, was introduced in both chambers of Congress on April 25.
The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2013 is authored by Rep. Tim Walz, D-MN, with original co-sponsors Reps. Collin Peterson, D-MN, ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, as well as Jeff Fortenberry, R-NE, and Chris Gibson, R-NY. The Senate author is Tom Harkin, D-IA, with at least seven original Senate co-sponsors, including Sens. Al Franken, D- MN, Amy Klobuchar, D- MN, Sherrod Brown, D-OH, Jeff Merkley, D-OR, Jon Tester, D-MT, Bob Casey, D-PA, Patrick Leahy, D-VT, and Tom Udall, D-NM.
“With the average age of the U.S. farmer at 57, ensuring the next generation of American farmers is able to provide the world with a safe, abundant supply of food should be a top priority,” said Walz, ranking member of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry. “To accomplish this goal, we must provide our youth with the training and tools they need to seize opportunity and take up farms of their own. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act works to do just that.”
The bipartisan legislation aims to help the next generation of farmers and ranchers take advantage of growing opportunities in agriculture and overcome barriers to entry. The legislation includes support for beginning farmer and rancher training programs, conservation incentives for new farmers and ranchers, and beginning farmer lending and savings provisions.
“I’m hearing of more and more people all across America who want to farm or start careers in agriculture,” Peterson said. “Supporting beginning farmers and ranchers is a win-win for rural America and the entire country.”
A central component of the bill is the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), which supports community-based organizations that offer beginning farmer training programs. Since 2009, demand for BFRDP has far outstripped resources available, with 528 applications and funding available for only 145 projects. This program, like many other innovative programs that support rural development, has been short-changed and stranded since Congress failed to pass a comprehensive farm bill last year, according to Adam Warthesen, a policy organizer for the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project (LSP).
One of the community-based initiatives that BFRDP has helped support is LSP’s Farm Beginnings Program, a 40-hour course on strategic planning for low-cost, sustainable methods of farming.
“Networking and connecting to farmers and others in our community through efforts like Farm Beginnings has been critical in helping us build and grow the farm operation,” said LSP member Shelley Schrandt. She and her husband Brad graduated from Farm Beginnings in 2006 and operate a 70-cow organic dairy near St. Charles, MN. They utilize grazing and sell milk to the Westby Creamery in Westby, WI. “Support for beginning farmers is clearly one area our country should invest in. More farmers can mean more economic activity and jobs for rural communities.”
The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act also contains a provision that ensures beginning farmer accessibility to conservation programs and resources will be maintained and strengthened.
Programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) currently set aside funds specifically directed to beginning farmers.
Young farmer Ryan Batalden raises crops and livestock near Lamberton in southwest Minnesota and has used the CSP and EQIP to manage and improve the conservation aspects of his operation.
Through these programs, Batalden has established cover crops, a green manure system and pollinator habitat, as well as nutrient and pest management.
“Getting started in farming is a major challenge with the cost of land, cost of machinery, and just all the things you need to be able to respond to, from markets to weather,” he said. “I can tell you firsthand the beginning farmer conservation program assistance we’ve received has really made a difference in helping us get started and started in a way that’s good for the environment and economically sound.”
In the coming months, additional co-sponsors are expected to join in supporting the bill and provisions that help beginning farmers and ranchers.
“We’re going to build momentum behind this legislation and I’m committed to securing new farmer provisions in a farm bill once that comes forward,” said Walz. “It’s the right investment at the right time to grow and support new farmers and ranchers in American agriculture.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor