American farmers are aging and dwindling in number, and two U.S. lawmakers want to encourage young or aspiring growers to enter the field, literally.
In an effort to recruit and support the next generation of farmers, a bipartisan group of legislators introduced the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act last week.
According to a news release, the law will invest in the next generation of farmers by:
• Enabling access to land, credit and crop insurance for new producers.
• Assisting new producers to launch and strengthen new farm and value-added businesses.
• Helping new producers become good stewards of the land.
• Providing training, mentoring and research that beginning farmers and ranchers need to be successful.
• Conducting outreach on agricultural job opportunities for military veterans.
There is "no shortage of people interested" in farming, said Traci Bruckner, assistant director of policy at the Center for Rural Affairs. "It's a matter of ability to get a foothold and get started. ... So we hope federal policy can recognize challenges and make programs work better for beginning farmers."
Beyond the efforts in Washington, Minnesota has historically been a leader in supporting farmers of the next generation. One helping hand has been the Farm Beginnings program, which has helped hundreds of beginning or transitioning farmers. The program is run by the Land Stewardship Project, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable agriculture.
Two veterans of the program, John and Heidi Wise, started a dairy farm in 2010 in northwest Wisconsin. Their story is recounted on the Land Stewardship website:
"That first year was horrible," Heidi Wise said, recalling backbreaking days, a lack of proper equipment and record snowfall that caused local barns to collapse.
The Wises eventually came to believe they made the right decision, though.
"You've got to prepare yourself to go through some tough stuff, but if you prepare for everything, you'll never step up," Heidi Wise said. "Eventually you have to step off the cliff."
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE NEW AMERICAN FARMER:
• What is Farm Beginnings?
"Farm Beginnings is a Land Stewardship Project (LSP) initiative that provides participants a wide range of opportunities to learn firsthand about low-cost, sustainable methods of farming." (Landstewardshipproject.org)
• So you want to be a farmer? Take this assessment on training programs
"Growing the Next Generation of Farmers: From Seed to Success" (Landstewardshipproject.org)
• Federal information on resources for new farmers
"Half of all current farmers in the U.S. are likely to retire in the next decade. Enlisting and supporting new farmers is essential to the future of family farms, the farm economy and healthy rural communities." (USDA.gov)
• USDA Census of Agriculture
"The Census of Agriculture is the leading source of facts and figures about American agriculture. Conducted every five years, the Census provides a detailed picture of U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them. It is the only source of uniform, comprehensive agricultural data for every state and county in the United States." (USDA.gov)
• High Minn. land prices force aspiring farmers to sidelines
"High land prices are making it difficult for young farmers. In one of the most volatile and expensive land markets in history, they generally don't have the financial resources to compete with established producers or investors. For those seeking a start, just renting a few acres is daunting. But they keep trying." (MPR)
• In Minn. and Wis., signs more young people see opportunity in farming
"The young entrepreneurs typically cite two reasons for going into farming: Many find the corporate world stifling and see no point in sticking it out when there's little job security; and demand for locally grown and organic foods has been strong enough that even in the downturn they feel confident they can sell their products." (MPR)
• After Graduating From College, It's Time to Plow, Plant and Harvest
"For decades, the number of farmers has been shrinking as a share of the population, and agriculture has often been seen as a backbreaking profession with little prestige. But the last Agricultural Census in 2007 showed a 4 percent increase in the number of farms, the first increase since 1920, and some college graduates are joining in the return to the land." (The New York Times)
• Future Farmers Look Ahead
"Although the nation has shifted ever further from its agrarian roots, the organization is thriving. Begun 83 years ago and now known simply as the F.F.A., it is the largest vocational student group in the country, with more than half a million members and still growing." (The New York Times)