Earlier this month, Congress introduced the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011 [H.R. 3236], a comprehensive marker bill for the 2012 farm bill that highlights federal programs that help support economic opportunities for young and beginning farmers and ranchers. The bill addresses many of the barriers that new agriculture entrepreneurs face such as limited access to land and markets, hyper land price inflation, high input costs, and a lack of sufficient support networks.

The Beginning Farmer Rancher Opportunity Act is a bipartisan and bicameral bill introduced in the House by Representatives Tim Walz, D-Minn., and Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., and an identical companion bill will be introduced by Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in the Senate next week once they return from recess.  There are additional members of both houses, including those that sit on the Agriculture Committees, that have indicated their support for the bill and will likely be signing on as co-sponsors shortly after introduction.

"We applaud Congressmen Walz and Fortenberry and Senator Harkin for introducing this legislation which is so important to the future of farming in this country," said Juli Obudzinski, a policy specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.  "Congress should include it as a critical, forward-looking component of the upcoming farm bill."

The bill is a result of strategic collaboration among many individuals and farmer advocacy organizations, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and many NSAC member groups, including Land Stewardship Project, Center for Rural Affairs, National Young Farmers’ Coalition, California FarmLink, and Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance, among others.  Over the past two years, NSAC and its allies have met with numerous officials at various USDA agencies, many legislative offices both in-district and on Capitol Hill, and with other farm and membership groups to solicit input on the bill’s provisions in order to make them as strong and targeted as possible.

"The scope of this bill represents a historical investment in beginning farmers.  The programs will nurture the next generation of family farmers by building human capital and assets,” says Steve Schwartz, founder of California FarmLink, an NSAC member group which was one of the first in the country to design and implement a successful Individual Development Accounts program to help new farmers save money and accumulate sufficient capital to begin farming.  “The Act builds a foundation to develop jobs and farm businesses in rural communities with a very small investment of government funds."

The bill includes provisions that cut across six titles of the Farm Bill, including proposals that address conservation program set asides and incentives, access to credit, rural development, research and extension, and access to crop insurance and risk management.

Specific proposals

Some of the specific proposals that are included in the Beginning Farmer bill are:

Individual Development Accounts and FSA Microloans

Passed in the 2008 Farm Bill but never appropriated to date, the IDA pilot program would support the establishment of matched savings accounts for beginning and socially disadvantaged producers, the proceeds of which may be used on capital expenditures for a farm or ranch operation, including purchases of land, buildings, equipment, or livestock.  The program would be administered by USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) and would include 15 state pilot programs.  The Bill also includes a proposal for FSA to deliver microloans not to exceed $35,000 that would serve the financial needs of young beginning farmers and ranchers.

"Access to capital is the number one challenge for beginning farmers," says Lindsey Lusher Shute, Director of the National Young Farmers' Coalition – an NSAC member group based in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York.  "Through the Individual Development Accounts pilot program and FSA microloans, the Act will get funds where they're needed and help new farm businesses get off the ground."

Other credit provisions in the bill offer support for the direct and guaranteed loan set-asides for beginning farmers and ranchers, and increasing the loan amount that beginning farmers can request under the Down Payment Loan Program.

“Access to capital is a must for beginning farmers,” said Tyler Benson, a farmer member of Land Stewardship Project who raises crops and cattle near Rushford, Minnesota, thanks in part to an FSA beginning farmer loan which was key in getting his operation started.  “These programs are good investments—new farmers are new jobs.  They buy products and supplies for their business and create economic activity.  We need more of that in rural America.”

Conservation programs

Loans and set asides for conservation programs

The Bill would also reauthorize many existing conservation programs targeted at beginning farmers, such as the Conservation Reserve Program-Transition Incentives Program (CRP-TIP) which provides incentives to retired or retiring farmers to rent or lease land expiring from CRP contracts to beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers.

"This bill will not only help beginning farmers get started in agriculture, but it will help them get started right by making conservation programs work for them," noted Traci Bruckner with the Center for Rural Affairs—an NSAC member based in Lyons, Nebraska.  Bruckner continues: "It will also help them gain access to land by continuing the Conservation Reserve Program Transition Incentives Program, which helps beginners bring land that was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program back into production in a conservation-based manner."

Additional conservation provisions support reaffirming the existing cost-share differential and funding set-asides for beginning farmers in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and to include a priority for beginning farmers in the Conservation Innovation Grant subprogram.  The bill would also provide a priority for beginning farmers within FSA’s Conservation Loan program, which provides loans to producers to establish conservation practices and structures on their operation.

Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program

One of the most important provisions in this bill is a proposal to reauthorize and increase mandatory funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) – a highly successful program first authorized in the 2008 farm bill, which provides competitive grants to a wide range of community-based training and education programs for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.  To date, BFRDP has funded 105 projects in 48 states and territories, including programs that assist with farm transition, provide technical assistance for beginning farmers, and offer financial and business training curriculum.

“Networking and connecting to farmers and others through community based [farmer training] programs was invaluable to helping us get started in farming,” said beginning farmer Katie Felland, who operates a farm that produces eggs, apples, pumpkins, berries and popcorn in Owatonna, Minnesota.  “We hope to grow our farm in the future, and getting support and assistance from community groups, we know can be effective.  That’s partly why this legislation makes sense—it provides community-based groups with the resources to work on local issues new farmers face.”

The bill also includes a provision to coordinate the borrower training program requirement administered through FSA with BFRDP-funded programs that offer financial training.  A final research provision in the bill would authorize research, education, and extension, projects to be funded under USDA's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative that are related to beginning farmers and ranchers, socially disadvantaged and immigrant farmers, farm transition, farm transfer, farm entry, new marketing and farm viability alternatives, and related issues.

Military veterans

Agricultural opportunities for military veterans

This bill also includes provisions to strengthen USDA’s support for military veterans, by adding a new grant priority for agricultural rehabilitation and vocational training programs for military veterans within the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program administered by USDA.  The bill would also establish a Veterans Agricultural Liaison Position within USDA’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach to help connect returning veterans with beginning farmer training and rehabilitation programs and assist them with program eligibility requirements for participation in farm bill programs.

“We are extremely excited about the bill's inclusion of a program to support military veterans who want to get into farming,” says Taylor Reid, founder of BeginningFarmers.org – an online resource for beginning farmers and ranchers, and Policy Coordinator for the NSAC member group Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance.  “We owe the military men and women who have proudly served their country, and often made significant sacrifices in doing so, the opportunity to find meaningful careers in agriculture."

Next Steps

With the 2012 farm bill, Congress has an opportunity to expand and improve a comprehensive beginning farmer and rancher initiative that breaks down barriers to entry and gives real support to ensure the effective start-up and success of new small and mid-scale producers across the country.

"The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition supports the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011, and advocates for fully incorporating the bill's provisions in the new farm bill," said Juli Obudzinski, an NSAC Policy Associate.  "We believe that the bill pulls together the best ideas from around the country for advancing new farming opportunities by building on the progress of previous farm bills, and stepping up the pace of reform."

For more information on the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Act, visit NSAC’s website.