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Building a deeper toolbox to help beginning farmers and ranchers

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Traditionally, a farm passes from one generation to the next. The older generation shares experience and expertise to guide beginning farmers and ranchers so they can take over the operation and keep the land in the family.


Photo by Shauna Rumbaugh.

Mentoring and conversations with his grandfather helped U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey learn how to manage the family farm, sell in an up or down market, work with rural neighbors and find solutions when things went wrong.

“I started farming with my grandfather, and he certainly helped me with some access to land that he was farming. He helped finance the equipment for me so I would be able to buy his equipment that worked on that farm,” Northey said.

During a panel at the virtual Emerging Research on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Conference hosted by Farm Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service in November, he shared some of the tools passed along to him from earlier generations when he was a beginning farmer in northwest Iowa 40 years ago.

But what happens when a prospective agricultural producer is the first generation to have an interest in farming or ranching? What if a farmer or rancher doesn’t have land to inherit or family members to learn the business from?

Throughout the two-day beginning farmers and ranchers conference, researchers addressed these challenges and discussed trends in providing beginning farmers with credit and access to capital and land, innovation and alternative markets.

“It’s important for us to be able to help beginning farmers,” Northey said. “We have the average age of farmers increasing. We all see that, and you can look around and see that in your own neighborhood.”

He stressed that beginning farmers have several similarities and share the need for tools of production, knowledge about how to produce and how to market, access to capital and mentoring. “But every beginning farmer is so different.” Providing them with the tools needed to be successful and helping them get a good start requires a targeted approach.

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Navigating USDA programs

The 2017 Census of Agriculture found that 27% of American producers are beginning farmers or ranchers—producers who have operated a farm or ranch for less than 10 years, according to USDA’s definition.

The agency offers several special provisions and resources for beginning farmers, including targeted funding with loans, crop insurance and conservation program benefits.

Navigating through program requirements and deciphering all the acronyms can have a steep learning curve. Many new farmers don’t even know what programs are available or whether they qualify.

USDA offers direct farm ownership loans, direct operating loans and microloans to beginning farmers and ranchers. FSA also offers a down payment program and joint financing options. Beginning farmers may also qualify for Coronavirus Food Assistance Program funding.

Northey said, “It doesn’t do any good to have all of these programs if nobody knows about them.”

Beginning farmers in conventional agriculture, such as a farmer growing corn and soybeans like the neighbors, may already be familiar with Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency offerings and are easy to find, he said.

“But if somebody is starting a new vegetable operation and hoop house and doesn’t have a reason to go into the local NRCS or FSA, we’ve got to go out and search for them, and that’s part of what this outreach effort is—to be able to find those folks and make sure they know about the programs,” he said. No single program works for everyone, so USDA partners need to be able to understand what individuals need so they can find the most useful tools.

The 2018 farm bill established beginning farmer and rancher coordinators in every state and a national coordinator to focus the outreach efforts of FSA, NRCS, Risk Management Agency and Rural Development, Northey said.

In addition to USDA Service Centers and NRCS offices, the new state outreach coordinators are crucial to helping beginning farmers and ranchers, he continued. They are on the ground following their own state outreach plans and working with county offices to focus outreach efforts.

Helping beginning farmers find their way

Sarah Campbell began her role as USDA’s national beginning farmer and rancher coordinator this spring.

“My work is to help coordinate USDA beginning farmer activities across the department and also lead and oversee the new state coordinators,” said Campbell, who is a beginning farmer herself and raises livestock on her family’s land in Maryland.

“Now every state has a beginning farmer and rancher coordinator, and they do a lot of different things. They provide technical support to beginning farmers or prospective beginning farmers, they are available to help folks navigate the web of USDA programs and beginning farmer and rancher resources at the state level, and they make a lot of referrals,” she said.

“You know, they help people find their way, whether it’s working with Extension or they're just looking for general information, an organization or a farm conference.”

With oversight from Campbell, the state coordinators are looking at demographics, drafting education and outreach plans designed to meet the needs of beginning farmers and ranchers in their area and developing strategies to encourage participation in USDA programs.

“They're all identifying their own priorities, because what beginning farmers need is different in every state,” Campbell said.

The state coordinators connect beginning farmers and ranchers with their local FSA and NRCS offices or service centers, make recommendations and share information about all the agencies’ programs. Campbell provides support to the field staff.

“Part of our approach with our state coordinators is that we want to be really holistic. I want beginning farmers to use all of the resources that are available wherever they are and build a very deep and large toolbox,” she said. She encourages new producers to use a mentor, talk to local Extension staff, develop a risk management plan and learn about options for farm loans.

Land access a significant challenge

In 2017 the National Young Farmers Coalition surveyed more than 3,500 farmers under the age of 40 and found that access to land is a significant challenge for beginning farmers and ranchers. Many of the respondents also indicated they did not have a farm background or come from a family farm.

Land link programs that match retiring farmers with beginning farmers, down payment loans and the Conservation Reserve Program Transition Incentive Program help address the problem of finding affordable access to land.

“It can be hard to pair landowners or retiring farmers with beginning farmers,” Campbell said. “You know, a lot of things have to come together to make that match work for everyone.”

Working with beginning farmers also requires a commitment from landowners, as the loan process may be slower than usual and it takes time to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Campbell expressed concern that younger or newer farmers may not have the financial reserves or deeper footing in their operation to withstand the pandemic and the other challenges of 2020. “This has been a real economic crisis for a lot of farmers.”

She said she has noticed that beginning farmers have shown willingness to be flexible and adapt to change, though. “The beginning farmers that I have talked to have also demonstrated a truly impressive flexibility. They have adapted and are shifting their operations and rolling with the punches and making it work—particularly those who are in those markets where they're able to sell directly to consumers. We're seeing a lot of them adopt e-commerce and online sales and start offering delivery and just, you know, making all these changes as they go,” Campbell said.

She recommends that beginning farmers and ranchers contact their state coordinator even if they are not yet ready to apply for a loan or enroll in a program but are in the information-gathering phase. “The coordinators are a great first step, and they're part of a really important network.”

Connecting to local resources is one of the most useful tools in a beginning farmer or rancher’s toolbox.

Shauna Rumbaugh can be reached at 620-227-1805 or

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