By Hannah Packman, NFU Communications Coordinator

Although farmers and ranchers with all levels of experience rely on farm bill programs for technical and financial assistance, they are of particular importance to beginning farmers. Beginning farmers, by definition, do not have access to many of the same resources more established producers do. Most obviously, newcomers do not have the skills and knowledge that experienced individuals would have gained during years of trial and error, and may require significant technical assistance to successfully start and maintain an operation. But beginning farmers and ranchers don’t just lack know-how – they also often have difficulty accessing land, capital, and appropriate markets. Such obstacles may nearly impossible to overcome alone, and would preclude most aspiring farmers from pursuing a career in agriculture.

Fortunately, there are a number of farm bill programs designed to alleviate the various challenges new producers generally encounter when entering the field. This can be achieved directly, by providing either financial assistance for land, tools, and infrastructure or technical assistance for the implementation of agricultural and business practices. Other programs assist beginning farmers more indirectly by improving market opportunities.

The former includes some programs exclusively for new producers like the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), which “provides grants to organizations for education, mentoring, and technical assistance initiatives for beginning farmers or ranchers,” and the Conservation Reserve Program Transition Incentives Program (CRP-TIP), which helps landowners transfer land enrolled in CRP to beginning or socially disadvantaged producers.

There are also a number of programs that are open to farmers of all ages and experiences, many of which set aside a portion of funding for beginning and socially disadvantaged producers, such as Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans, which can be used for the costs associated with starting and maintaining an operation, risk management programs like Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP), which provides a risk management safety net for all commodities on the farm under one insurance policy, and working lands conservation programs, which help farmers implement and improve conservation practices. (See yesterday’s Climate Column post for an overview of how the House Farm Bill draft would affect working lands programs.)

The latter includes a variety programs that help beginning farmers and ranchers access existing markets, such as the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP), which offers reimbursement for a portion of organic certification costs, and Value Added Producer Grants, which assist with the processing and marketing of new products. There are also efforts to expand current markets and develop new ones through the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP), which provides outreach, training, and technical assistance to farmers markets, and the Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP), which supports the development and expansion of local and regional food business enterprises. Similarly, the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) Grant Program provides incentives for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants to purchase more produce while the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) provides funding for projects that will “enhance the ability of producers and processors who have already adopted organic standards to grow and market high quality organic agricultural products.”

There is some evidence that these programs have been effective at facilitating entry into the agricultural profession; according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the number of principal operators between the ages of 25 and 34 increased by 2.2% since 2007, when the previous census was conducted.

Every five years, the farm bill, along with many of the programs it authorizes and funds, expires. The current farm bill, passed in 2014, will expire this September, meaning that Congress must pass an updated version or risk the termination of several critical food and farm programs. Last week, the House Agriculture Committee released its draft of the 2018 Farm Bill. The draft, which serves as a starting point for the text that will be offered to the entire House of Representatives for consideration, would reauthorize and maintain current funding levels for several of the aforementioned programs, including BFRDP and CRP-TIP. However, it includes significant changes to other programs on which beginning farmers depend.

The current draft would reauthorize but eliminate mandatory funding for a number of programs, including VAPG, FMPP, and LFPP, meaning the existence of programs will be contingent upon year-to-year discretionary funding. Depending on the year, those programs may not receive funding at all. One of the above programs – NOCCP – would neither be funded nor reauthorized, which would essentially eliminate it. Without these programs, beginning farmers and ranchers would have diminished access to avenues through which to sell their goods.

Other changes, on the other hand, would make programs more accessible to beginning producers. For WFRP, for instance, the bill would expand the definition of “beginning farmers” from those with five years of experience to those with ten years, thus making the program and its beginning farmer premium subsidy available to more producers. Additionally, both FINI and OREI would be reauthorized and provided with additional mandatory funding over the 2014 Farm Bill levels.

It should be noted that this draft is just the first of many, and that the final 2018 Farm Bill may or may not resemble it in any way.

Have you used any of these programs? Are there other ways that beginning farmers and ranchers can access the resources they need to have a successful career in agriculture? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Like what you’ve read? Check out our Beginning Farmer Forum home page, and join the conversation in the Beginning Farmer Forum Facebook group.

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