On April 25, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz announced the introduction of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2013 in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The identical bills expand opportunities and remove barriers for beginning farmers and those who wish to pursue a career in agriculture.
In addition to the bill’s lead sponsors, the following members have signed on as original co-sponsors: Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, New York Rep. Chris Gibson, and Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, Montana Sen. Jon Tester, New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken.
The bill reduces barriers, such as credit and land access issues, that new agriculture entrepreneurs face, and invests in successful new-farmer training programs and grants to help farmers capture more of the retail food dollar through value-added enterprises.
“We applaud Senator Harkin and Representative Walz and their co-sponsors for reintroducing this legislation and for championing the needs of beginning farmers as Congress heads into another farm bill,” says Juli Obudzinski, Policy Associate with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act helps new farmers get started in agriculture and invests in programs that have a proven track record of equipping farmers with the tools and skills they need to be successful in their farming career.”
The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act is a comprehensive legislative package that invests in critical federal conservation, credit, research, and rural development programs that support opportunities for new farmers and ranchers. The bill was originally introduced in the previous Congress, and gained the support of 37 members in the House and Senate who signed on to co-sponsor the bill. In addition to NSAC, over 170 organizations officially endorsed the bill, including the National Farmers Union, National Association of Counties, Organic Valley, and the Farmer-Veteran Coalition.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has been closely involved in the development of this bill, and has worked in close partnership with both Congressional offices along with several farmer advocacy organizations across the country.
“With the average age of the U.S. farmer at 57, ensuring that 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 Congressman Walz, Ranking Member of the U.S. House 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. By easing access to lines of credit and land, and creating training programs for new producers, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act works to do just that.”
Most of the bill’s provisions were included in either or both the Senate-passed or House Agriculture Committee passed farm bills in 2012, and the bills’ sponsors are hopeful that they will be able to expand upon these successes in the upcoming farm bill debate later this spring.
"This legislation will help families and individuals across our nation apply their talents, motivation, and dedication to start and continue farm and ranch operations and revitalize rural America,” Senator Harkin said. “Beginning farmers and ranchers will benefit from practical assistance in this bill, including effective training and mentoring, better access to and careful use of credit, enhanced support for conservation, and help in starting and succeeding in profitable enterprises such as value-added businesses."
Some of the specific proposals included in the bill include:
Expanded credit options
The bill would create a new microloan program that would make loans up to $35,000 to young, beginning, and veteran farmers seeking capital to help cover start-up costs, such as purchasing seeds or building a greenhouse. The bill would also give new farmers increased flexibility in meeting loan eligibility requirements for FSA loans to purchase farmland. Finally, the bill would provide funding to jump start an Individual Development Account pilot program aimed at helping beginning farmers with limited financial resources to establish savings accounts that could later be used to cover capital expenditures for a farm or ranch operation, including purchases of land, buildings, equipment, or livestock.
Access to farmland
The legislation would help new and aspiring farmers access land to start or expand their farming operations by continuing and improving the successful Down Payment Loan Program, which provides much needed capital to new farmers seeking to purchase property. The bill would also modify the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program to give priority to preserving farmland that is accessible and affordable to new farmers, and increase funding for the Conservation Reserve Program Transitions Incentives Program, which incentivizes retiring landowners to rent or sell their farmland to beginning farmers.
New farmer training programs
The bill would renew funding for the successful Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which provides grants to organizations and institutions to establish new farmer training programs. This program is the only federal initiative that is exclusively dedicated to training the next generation of farmers and ranchers. Over the past four years, the program has invested over $70 million to develop and strengthen innovative new farmer training programs and resources across the country, and has funded 145 projects in 46 states. Unfortunately, this program has been one of the casualties of Congress’s inability to pass a farm bill last year, and has been without funding since October.
This legislation invests in critical economic development programs, including the popular Value-Added Producer Grants program, which provides grants to farmers to scale up their businesses and add value to their products in order to meet surging consumer demand for high quality, farm-based, value-added food products such as farmstead cheese, salsa, and grass-fed beef. Value-added enterprises have proven to be an especially useful business model for new farmers seeking to capture as much profit as possible in order to build a stable farm business.
Agricultural opportunities for veterans
The bill would also expand resources and create economic opportunities for military veterans interested in pursuing a career in agriculture by establishing a new funding priority on new farmer training and agricultural rehabilitation programs specifically geared at returning veterans, and creating a new Veterans Agricultural Liaison within USDA to help connect returning veterans with beginning farmer resources and assist them with program eligibility requirements for participation in farm bill programs.