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.”

Specifics and veterans

On more specifics in the bill…

“The bill cuts across six titles of the farm bill: conservation, credit provisions, rural development, research, crop insurance and the miscellaneous title.

“Among the bigger proposals is the Conservation Reserve Program-Transition Incentives Program (CRP-TIP). The bill would reauthorize this program, which is very important for farmers wanting to use conservation practices and sustainable methods for production.

“A lot of acres are expected to be coming back into production from expiring CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) contracts. This program would allow a landowner to lease those acres to a beginning farmer and get two extra years of rental payments. There are some contingencies: they have to lease to a beginning farmer who has to practice conservation-based sustainable production methods.

“Under the credit provisions, a pilot program was authorized in the 2008 farm bill to establish ‘Individual Development Accounts’ targeted for beginning farmers and ranchers. The legislation in the books but was never appropriated any funding.

“So, we propose to reauthorize the program exactly as written and allocate mandatory funding so the program would actually get started. That would provide grants to organizations where young farmers would apply for matched savings accounts. I believe it’s modeled on programs where people save up down payments to buy a house. So, every dollar the farmer would save would be matched through the program.

“There are organizations that have implemented (similar) programs. One is California FarmLink, which has been really successful in helping farmers save money.

“Another big priority is the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), a competitive grants program. It was also established in the 2008 farm bill.

“The 2008 farm bill had a lot of really good provisions, especially related to research and help for beginning farmers. This legislation doesn’t propose a lot of new programs but is trying to preserve the gains made in the 2008 farm bill.

“The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program is one of those gains. It’s been highly successful and is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a USDA agency. It provides competitive grants to community-based organizations that establish beginning farmer training programs. It provides programs that assist with farm transitions, connects farmers to land that becomes available, provides financial management for farmers. To date, I believe it has funded 105 projects in 48 states and territories.”

On military veterans as beginning farmers…

“Most of the proposals in the bill are modifying existing programs – making small changes so they work better for beginning farmers.

“One of those to create a new grant priority for military veterans. That’s a potential new demographic that want to enter farming. One provision in the bill would create a priority within the beginning farm program to specifically establish training programs and agriculture rehabilitation programs for returning military veterans.

“There is also a provision that would establish a liaison position to work with veterans and connect them with USDA programs. Groups in California and Michigan are already involved in beginning farmer/veteran issues.”

Any other legislation you’re working on?

“We’ve been working on legislation that specifically addresses local and regional food systems. The aim is to increase opportunities for local and regional food – to address the middle piece between producers and consumers. It would support infrastructure, distribution, aggregation, marketing, and increasing access to healthy food.

For more, see Local and regional food legislation prepped new farm bill.

“We’ve been working with Maine Rep. Chellie Pingreeand Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and expect that bill to be introduced this week or next.

“The idea, again, is to provide a ‘marker’ bill with a lot of provisions. It cuts across, I think, nine titles of the farm bill.”