By Mike Crapo
Preliminary results from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2012 Census of Agriculture confirm that the average age of the American farmer is continuing to increase. With more pressure on our land and an expanding need for food worldwide, we must persist in looking for ways to address the challenges faced by those just starting out in farming and ranching.
USDA found that a mere 6 percent of principal farm operators are under 35 years old, and the average age of principal farm operators has risen 1.2 years since 2007 to 58.3 years old. This continues a 30-year trend of a steady increase in the age of producers. Further, according to the USDA, the number of beginning farmers on their current operation less than 10 years was down 20 percent from 2007. While Idaho was among the 19 states that had the amount of land in farms increase, it is also among the 34 states that saw a decrease in its number of farms.
The world population and food needs are growing, and American farmers and ranchers have been at the forefront of feeding Americans and people around the world. As producers age, there must be a backfill of the next generation of producers and farmers to help ensure that food needs are met.
Considering the rising challenges, starting an agricultural operation can be more than intimidating. Producers face increased land, input and agricultural machinery costs, changing regulatory and paperwork requirements, pressures on land and water resources, unpredictable natural disasters, emerging plant pest and diseases and fluctuating commodity prices to name a few. Overcoming these challenges requires careful planning and often considerable capital and support. It often takes years to grow the assets needed to get into the business.
Recognizing this challenge, Congress has taken steps to try to help ease the path for young producers. Although this legislation is imperfect, the recently enacted Farm Bill supports a number of programs designed to assist beginning farmers and ranchers with getting started:
Access to Capital -- As one of the most significant challenges faced by beginning farmers and ranchers is accessing the finances needed to acquire the land and equipment needed for farm operations, the Farm Bill continues higher loan funds and the strengthened down payment loan program for new producers. The law also prioritizes guaranteed farm ownership loan funds and direct operating loan funds for beginning farmers and ranchers. The Contract Land Sales Program that provides loans to retiring farmers who sell their land to beginning farmers is also reauthorized, and access is increased to guaranteed lending and microloan programs. To improve federal crop insurance access, the Farm Bill provides beginning producers with a 10 percentage point discount on crop insurance premiums.
Conservation Incentives -- The Farm Bill also continues incentives for getting started with implementing conservation measures, including reserving Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program assistance for beginning farmers and ranchers and providing conservation loans for building conservation structures or establishing conservation practices.
Outreach and Training -- The Farm Bill extends the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program that provides training and mentoring for beginning producers, including military veterans. A military veterans' agricultural liaison is also created to assist veterans starting out in agriculture.
This is just some of the assistance provided to beginning producers, and it does not remedy all the challenges. However, these programs can help ease the road ahead. As the USDA works to implement these provisions, I encourage those pursuing starting out in agriculture to explore whether these programs may be of assistance to them. More information regarding federal agricultural programs can be found at www.usda.gov.