Farmers have been hearing for years that they aren't getting any younger. Studies show the median age of the nation's commercial farmers and ranchers to be around 57 years of age and climbing.

Such statistics — another is that farmers over the age of 65 outnumber those under 35 by a margin of two to one — could begin to change if Congress passes new legislation aimed at helping young men and women begin a career in farming.

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2007 is sponsored by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Charles Grassley, R-Iowa; Max Baucus, D-Mont.; and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; and Reps. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., and Tim Walz, D-Minn.

Over the next two decades, an estimated 400 million acres of agricultural land will be transferred to new owners, according to Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and forestry.

“The challenges facing beginning farmers and ranchers are immense,” said Harkin. “The cost of land and equipment, obtaining credit, turning a profit and building equity in a highly uncertain business are just a few of those.”

Harkin is expected to include the legislation in the farm bill proposal the Senate ag committee is expected to take up later this month. The bill includes conservation, credit and research provisions aimed at helping young farmers be good stewards of the land, innovative, entrepreneurial and able to respond to changing market conditions.

The bill strengthens the conservation incentives for beginning farmers in the 2002 farm bill by providing increased technical assistance, clarifying the cost share rates for beginning farmers and ranchers, and offering financial incentives to beginning farmers and ranchers for developing whole farm or ranch resource management system conservation plans.

The latter would be part of their participation in Conservation Security Program or Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Harkin was the principal author of the CSP, which was supposed to be the centerpiece of the new, “greener” 2002 farm bill.

It would create a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Accounts Pilot Program to promote matched savings accounts. The proceeds would be used on capital expenditures for a farm or ranch operation, including purchases of land, buildings, equipment, or livestock. The proposed program would be administered through the Farm Service Agency and include at least 15 state pilot programs.

The bill would also increase direct farm ownership and operating loan limits for beginning farmers and ranchers from $200,000 to $300,000 for each type of loan to reflect the economic realities of recent years.

Beginning farmers and ranchers who are unable to obtain credit from commercial sources currently are eligible for Farm Service Agency direct farm ownership and operating loans up to $200,000, said Harkin. “This limit has not been adjusted in nearly two decades despite the rising cost of land, equipment and energy and thus is no longer sufficient.”

Since the 1990 farm bill, Congress has created programs for beginning farmers and ranchers, particularly in the area of farm credit. But beginning producers face unique challenges that go beyond credit programs, he noted. To succeed, they also need access to training, technical assistance, land and markets.

Public interest groups such as the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition praised the introduction of the legislation, calling it a “cross-cutting initiative” to help the next generation of farmers and ranchers enter agriculture.

“The face of farming and ranching is changing,” said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the coalition. “In 1978, there were 350,000 farmers age 35 or younger. Since that time the number of young farmers has declined dramatically with experts predicting the 2007 census may reveal as few as 70,000 farmers under the age of 35.

“At the same time, the percentage of farmers over the age of 65 years is increasing. With an estimated 400 million acres of agricultural land transferring to new owners over the next two decades, the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and other groups believe the time is now to encourage the next crop of farmers and ranchers.”

While retiring farmers are looking to transfer their land and knowledge, a others, including immigrant and women farmers (two of the fastest-growing segments of agriculture) are seeking a start, Hoefner said.

“There are real opportunities in agriculture today,” he noted. “Unprecedented consumer demand for organic, locally-grown, and grass-fed agricultural products provides those just entering farming with exciting market prospects.

“The 2007 farm bill presents us with a chance to give these new farmers and ranchers the tools they need to take advantage of these markets. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher initiative lays the foundation for the next generation of farmers and ranchers as well as the future health and vitality of our food system.”

The sponsors said the bill incorporates modified versions of suggestions made by Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in his farm bill proposal but includes many additional measures as well.