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USDA out to help small and mid-sized farmers, Vilsack says


By Larry Dreiling

New and expanded efforts to connect small- and mid-sized farmers and ranchers with resources of the U.S. Department of Agriculture were announced March 10 by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

The efforts, Vilsack said, are intended to help these farmers build stronger businesses, expand to reach new and larger markets, and grow their operations.

“The recent Census of Agriculture shows that there is tremendous growth potential for small- and mid-sized producers in the American agricultural landscape,” Vilsack said. “USDA is taking a hard look at our existing resources to ensure that they work for producers of all sizes.

We’ve adjusted policies, strengthened programs and intensified outreach to meet the needs of small- and mid-sized producers. These producers are critical to our country’s agricultural and economic future.”

Efforts include improved access to USDA resources, revised risk management tools that better fit the needs of smaller producers, additional support for hoop houses, and expanded collection of valuable market news information.

USDA is also introducing a series of education tools focusing on opportunities for farmers engaged in local and regional food systems. In addition, USDA field staff will be boosting outreach efforts to small- and mid-sized farmers and ranchers, Vilsack said.

More information about tools and resources available to small- and mid-sized farmers will be rolled out in the coming months, including information about access to capital, risk management, food safety, and locating market opportunities on USDA’s Small and Mid-Sized Farmer Resources webpage.

The new efforts Vilsack announced are detailed below.

Access to capital

Changes to the Farm Storage and Facility Loan Program to help small- and mid-sized fruit and vegetable producers access the program for cold storage and related equipment like wash and pack stations. Diversified and smaller fruit and vegetable producers, including Community Supported Agriculture programs, are now eligible for a waiver from the requirement that they carry crop insurance or NAP coverage when they apply for an FSFL loan. FSFL can also be used to finance hay barns and grain bins.

Funding for producers under the popular microloan program. USDA launched the microloan program to allow beginning, small- and mid-sized farmers to access up to $35,000 in loans using a simplified application process. Since their debut in 2013, USDA has issued more than 4,900 microloans totaling $97 million.

Funding for hoop houses to extend the growing season. Hoop houses provide revenue opportunities while also promoting conservation for small- and mid-sized farmers. The hoop house cost share program began as a pilot in 2010. Since then, more than 10,000 hoop houses have been contracted. USDA will soon announce an additional $15 million for hoop house development in persistent poverty counties in nineteen states as part of USDA’s Strike Force for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative.

Risk management

Developing tools to help small- and mid-sized farmers and ranchers make sound financial decisions as they plan for their future. USDA is developing a whole farm insurance policy that will better meet the needs of highly diversified producers, particularly small- and mid-sized fruit and vegetable growers. Using new tools provided by the farm bill, USDA is working to reduce crop insurance costs for beginning farmers and ranchers. And organic producers will benefit from the elimination of a previously required 5 percent surcharge on crop insurance premiums.

Locating market opportunities

USDA’s Farm to School Program has put seven new Farm to School coordinators on the ground in regional offices to help build direct relationships between small- and mid-sized producers and school districts. One priority area for Farm to School is creating more opportunities for small- and mid-sized livestock and poultry producers. Since 2013, USDA has invested nearly $10 million in Farm to School grants that support schools as they purchase from local and regional sources. In the 2011-12 school year, schools spent nearly $355 million on local and regional food purchases.

Expanded price, volume, supply and demand information through Market News. Market News is now collecting price data on grass-fed beef to arm producers with real pricing information from the sector. Market News will also soon begin collecting data about local food prices and volume, valuable to small- and mid-sized producers engaged in that marketplace. Market News provides real time price, volume, supply, and demand information for producers to use in making production and marketing decisions. Access to timely, unbiased market information levels the playing field for all producers participating in the marketplace.

Broadened the National Farmers Market Directory to include CSAs, on-farm stores and food hubs. This information will help small and mid-sized producers find new market opportunities. USDA will begin collecting data to update the directory for the 2014 season this spring. The USDA National Farmers Market Directory annually receives more than 2 million hits.

Food safety

Launched pilot projects in five states to help small- and mid-sized farmers achieve Good Agricultural Practice certification. GAP certification indicates farmers have met food safety standards required by many retail buyers. Under these pilot programs, small- and mid-sized producers will be able to share the costs and fees associated with the certification process as a group. Group GAP efforts are being developed in partnership with small- and mid-sized producer groups in Michigan, Wisconsin, Montana, Pennsylvania and Missouri.

Educational resources and outreach

Created a Learning Guide Series for small- and mid-sized producers to help them navigate available USDA resources, available on the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food website. The first in this series will be for small and mid-sized livestock and poultry producers. Additional Learning Guides will be released later this year. USDA field staff and Strike Force teams will increase outreach to small- and mid-sized producers using the Learning Guides.

Launched Small Scale Solutions for Your Farm, a series of educational resources designed for both small livestock and fruit and vegetable producers. This includes tips on simple management activities such as planting cover crops to complex structural practices such as animal waste management systems or innovative irrigation devices.

2014 farm bill

The recently signed 2014 farm bill provides USDA with more direct resources to support small and mid-sized farmers, including:

Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which provides grants to organizations that train, educate and provide outreach and technical assistance to new and beginning farmers on production, marketing, business management, legal strategies and other topics critical to running a successful operation. The 2014 farm bill provides $100 million total to BFRDP over the next five years.

Value-Added Producer Grant Program was modified to allow USDA to better target small- and mid-sized family farms, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and veterans. The 2014 farm bill provides $63 million over the next five years.

Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program is expanded to support both direct-to-consumer opportunities and other supply chain projects such as food hubs. The 2014 farm bill annually provides $30 million.

USDA FY2015 budget proposal

USDA recently released its fiscal year 2015 budget, which includes additional resources to help small- and mid-sized farmers and ranchers, including:

$2.5 million to provide food safety training to owners and operators of small farms, small food processors, and small fruit and vegetable vendors affected by Food Safety Modernization Act.

$3 million for Small, Socially Disadvantaged Producers Grants Program to ensure historically underprivileged rural Americans have opportunities for cooperative development.

$2.5 million for a new Food and Agriculture Resilience Program for Military Veterans (FARM-Vets) that promotes research, education, and extension activity for veterans.

$11 million for the Value-Added Producer Grants Program. The 2014 farm bill provides an additional $63 million in mandatory funding that is available until expended.

$2.5 million in funding for the National Agricultural Statistics Service to conduct a survey on land ownership and farm financial characteristics. This supports an administration priority that will provide additional demographic data related to small and beginning farmers and ranchers.

$1.2 million for the Office of Advocacy and Outreach to carry out these responsibilities and the provisions of the 2014 farm bill related to outreach to beginning, small, and socially disadvantaged farmers, and ranchers, including veterans, and rural communities.

$25.7 million for Departmental Administration to maintain critical support activities and oversight for the Department, including management of small and disadvantaged business utilization programs.

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by email at ldreiling@aol.com.

Date: 4/7/2014



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