With a large number of the nation's farmers approaching retirement age, Mark Udall is urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to look for new, innovative ways to encourage young people to take up farming. The number of entry-level farmers has fallen by 30 percent since 1987 and new farmers are estimated to make up only 10 percent of farmers and ranchers. Udall is working on ways to expand producers' access to agricultural lands, including looking into initiatives to encourage linking beginning farmers and ranchers with their retiring counterparts.
Last week, Udall wrote to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to encourage his agency to build on its efforts ensure a strong future for U.S. agriculture.
"As America's farmers grow older and the barriers to entry in agriculture grow, it's critically important to our economy and national security that we build resources for the next generation of farmers and ranchers," Udall said. "I applaud the USDA's efforts to tap creative ways to support farmers, but I think we can do more."
Barriers to accessing both land and capital have been particularly challenging for beginning farmers and ranchers, and often those who are retiring find it difficult to find new producers who will keep their lands in agriculture. Earlier this month, the USDA announced that it would develop with the American Farm Bureau Federation a web portal called Start2Farm to function as an online resource to direct new and small farmers to resources that can help them become successful. Udall believes this one-stop-shop can help new, small and even experienced farmers access coordinated information and resources about training, financing, technical assistance and networking opportunities that can ensure the continuity of agricultural operations.
"Start2Farm is an encouraging step in the right direction, and I urge the USDA to continue developing new and creative ways to support both beginning farmers and retiring farmers in an effort to protect America's agricultural future," Udall wrote to Vilsack. "I am confident that America's agricultural sector can remain competitive and productive to ensure a reliably safe food supply that we all depend on."
Udall is looking for ways to help Colorado's farmers and ranchers keep land in agriculture, building on work that includes his introduction of the American Family Farm and Ranchland Protection Act last year. His bill would offer a significant incentive to permanently conserve land under easement by providing estate tax relief to families and protecting their land for agricultural and conservation use for future generations.
Below is the text of the letter:
Dear Secretary Vilsack:
As you are well aware, statistics show that the average age of the American farmer continues to rise. According to the USDA's 2007 Census of Agriculture, the average age of farm operators was 57 years old. Moreover, the Center for Rural Affairs reported that farmers over age 55 owned more than half the farmland in the United States and half of all current farmers are likely to retire in the next decade. These statistics combined with predictions that fewer new farmers will enter agriculture to replace retiring farmers and ranchers bring great concern. A report by the National Young Farmers' Coalition showed that for each farmer under 35, there are 6 over 65.
I know that you are more than familiar with these numbers and the corresponding need to support our beginning farmers and ranchers. To this end, it is imperative that we look at new and creative ways to support beginning and small farmers and I believe that the USDA's recent partnership with the American Farm Bureau Federation to strengthen the Start2Farm web portal is a notable achievement.
I urge you to continue to dedicate sufficient resources to this effort, and I also encourage you to look at innovative ways the USDA can further support retiring farmers' efforts to keep their land in agriculture. Too often, retiring farmers are left little choice but to retire their land from agriculture when they choose to leave their profession. We must acknowledge that support for retiring farmers can also lead to new opportunities for small and beginning farmers. I hope that Start2Farm can also be a stronger resource for retiring farmers and ranchers to access both USDA and non-governmental services that can help them achieve the goal of keeping land in agriculture.
Start2Farm is an encouraging step in the right direction, and I urge the USDA to continue developing new and creative ways to support both beginning farmers and retiring farmers in an effort to protect America's agricultural future. I am confident that America's agricultural sector can remain competitive and productive to ensure a reliably safe food supply that we all depend on. I look forward to hearing from you, and please do not hesitate to contact my office if I can be helpful in these efforts.