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USDA Struggles to Spark Youth Interest in Farming

Farmers’ markets have spread across the country, and supermarkets and even chain restaurants are vying to lure customers with locally grown foods.

With that demand for fresh produce, there’s hardly been a better time to get into farming, it would seem. Right? Maybe not.

The latest agricultural census shows a steep drop in the number of beginning farmers, despite the Obama administration’s vigorous effort to recruit new farmers and promote small-scale agriculture.

The number of producers who have been the principal operators of their farms or ranches for less than five years fell by 23 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to preliminary data from the census that the Department of Agriculture conducts every five years.

The share of farms run by new producers has been in decline for decades. In 2012, 22 percent of principal operators had been farming for less than 10 years, down from 26 percent in 2007 and 38 percent in 1982.

Meanwhile, the latest survey shows that the average age of the nation’s farmers continues to rise, extending a decades-long trend. The average age reached 58.3 years in 2012, up 1.2 years from 2007.

USDA demographers attribute the drop most recently to the rising cost of farming and a devastating drought in 2012. “It costs a lot of money to start a farm today. The cost of everything has gone up on the farm, the equipment, the land is very expensive. Then in 2012 we had one of the worst droughts in recent memory and it affected much of the agricultural land in the U.S.,” said Linda J. Young, research and development division director for USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Land prices have soared since 2007, driven by skyrocketing prices for corn and other commodities. The average price of cropland in Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s home state of Iowa more than doubled from $3,908 an acre in 2007 to $8,716 last year, which simply puts farming out of reach for most young people.

“It’s very hard to go out and start by scratch. It’s impossible,” said Garrett Dwyer, a 27-year-old Nebraska rancher who raises cattle on his family’s 5,000-acre spread. The USDA will lend new farmers up to $300,000 to get started, but “that’s not even enough to buy a tractor” at today’s prices, much less land, Dwyer said.

Rising commodity prices have also have encouraged older farmers to stay in business and even expand. That “means that fewer people are going to retire, sell or transfer land while there is money to be made,” said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Nebraska was one of a few states that showed increases in the number of new farmers. Connecticut and Vermont were among others.

There was some good news in the numbers — a 2 percent increase in the number of farmers between the ages of 25 and 34, an rise that appears puzzling at first glance, because the overall number of new farmers dropped.

But separate research by the USDA has estimated that the average beginning farmer in recent years is in his or her late 40s. The number of farmers who fall in that age range — between 35 and 54 years of age —dropped by 11 percent to 739,329 between 2007 and 2012.

The final census data, set for release May 2, will provide a more detailed look at what happened.

Vilsack has talked regularly about what he sees as a need to attract younger people into farming in order to rebuild what he called the “eroding middle” in agriculture and maintain the economic health of rural areas.

During President Barack Obama’s first term, the USDA launched a “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative that sought to promote small-scale farming and locally produced foods. And Krysta Harden, who took over last year as the department’s deputy secretary, has made it a priority to promote beginning farmer programs, including attending meetings where new farmers would be present.

Vilsack recently announced some key administrative changes to assist small-scale produce growers, while both the recently enacted farm bill (PL 113-79) and Obama’s proposed fiscal 2015 budget contain provisions expanding federal aid to beginning farmers.

The USDA will allow fruit and vegetable growers to apply for storage facility loans to build packing sheds and storage. These loans have previously been reserved for commodity grain bins. “That’s the real game changer,” said Hoefner.

The USDA’s Farm Service Agency sent a directive to its field offices this month, instructing them to waive an existing requirement that says loans for these facilities can’t be handed out unless recipients have crop insurance. The change will be particularly important as rules take effect under the Food Safety Modernization Act that will likely require upgrades to handling facilities.

The farm bill includes provisions that will:

Increase the premium subsidy for crop insurance policies by 10 percentage points.

Allow development of “whole farm” insurance policies for diversified farms, which small-scale produce farms typically are. Conventional policies cover a single crop.

Fund seven new farm-to-school coordinators in regional USDA offices to help connect schools with producers. In 2012, schools spent $355 million on local and regionally produced food.

The president’s proposed 2015 budget seeks a sharp increase in the number of low-interest loans the USDA can make to beginning farmers. Dwyer got started by borrowing $245,000 from the Farm Service Agency to buy his first equipment and cattle. The interest rate was “ridiculously low” at about 1 percent to 2 percent, he said.

An annual survey released by the American Farm Bureau Federation finds that young farmers between the ages of 18 and 35 say securing land is the biggest obstacle they face. The AFBF surveyed members of its Young Farmers & Ranchers Program and 22 percent said that finding adequate land was their primary challenge.

The young farmers also had other concerns: 12 percent said those included bureaucratic red tape, 9 percent the availability of labor, and 9 percent water availability and the urbanization of land.

Despite the obstacles, Dwyer thinks he got into ranching at the perfect time. In part because of the drought, U.S. cattle production has shrunk and prices have skyrocketed. He has nearly tripled the size of his herd since buying his first cows with the FSA loan.

“I got into it when the beef prices were starting to go up, and then we hit that drought, and the drought even affected us, but the herd numbers across the country are at a all time low,” he said.

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