Seeking to increase the young farmer demographic and provide it a better chance to thrive, the bipartisan Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011 has been introduced in the House. An identical bill is expected to be introduced in the Senate in early November.

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC),which pushed for the legislation, the bill “addresses many of the barriers that new agriculture entrepreneurs face such as limited access to land and markets, hyper land price inflation, high input costs, and a lack of sufficient support networks.”

On Thursday morning, Delta Farm Press spoke with Juli Obudzinski, policy specialist with the NSAC, about the legislation, why the coalition sees the young farmer issue as a priority and how military veterans figure in. Among her comments:

On how the bill came to be…

“As a coalition, we have about 82 organizations across the country. We’ve been working with six of those on this legislation. It’s been about a two-year process…

“A similar bill was done for the last farm bill. The vision is to get the proposals out there that deal specifically with beginning farmer issues as a ‘marker’ bill in the lead-up to the next farm bill. … It’s meant to get support on the Hill – especially finding champions in Congress who will support beginning farmer issues.”

Was your timeline moved up because of the super committee?

“We’ve wanted to introduce the bill earlier than it (was). Obviously, there are a lot of things that can hold up a bill – communicating between offices, getting sign-offs.

“But definitely, with the super committee process, we were told many times by any offices ‘you have to get your proposals out if they’re going to be seriously considered.’

“We are working with a speeded-up timeline.”

On why the legislation is needed…

“A core issue for NSAC is making sure beginning and young farmers have opportunities in agriculture. Specifically, those who would practice sustainable agriculture and small and mid-size farmers.

“There is a host of issues (to cite) as reasons for this legislation. The average age of the farmers in this country is only going up. USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan has said the average farmer age is between 55 and 57…

“If we aren’t bringing young people in to replace (farmers who retire) it means the farms will just become bigger and continue to consolidate. That has a negative impact on rural communities…

“Another issue is the increasing demand for local and regional food systems. A lot of consumers want to buy local food. We need beginning farmers to serve and produce for such markets. The demand has historically outstripped the supply for them.

“There is also the issue of access to credit. Many times, beginning farmers find access to credit is one of the biggest barriers to getting into farming along with access to land and high land costs.

“A lot of the provisions in the bill strive to improve access to credit for the young farmer demographic. We want to make sure the credit programs in the USDA work for beginning farmers and cater to them.”