Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., last week introduced an identical bill in the House and Senate aimed at improving financing and land ownership opportunities for beginning farmers and ranchers.
The bill – called the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act – aims to improve on existing USDA programs to help reduce the financial burden of starting a farm, and also includes a program for training beginning farmers and ranchers.
"With the average age of the U.S. farmer at 57, ensuring that the next generation of American farmers is able to provide the world with a safe, abundant supply of food should be a top priority," Walz said in a press statement. "To accomplish this goal, we must provide our youth with the training and tools they need to seize opportunity and take up farms of their own."
A similar bill was introduced in previous legislative sessions, but most recently, some of the bill's provisions were included in either or both of the House Agriculture Committee-passed or Senate-passed farm bills. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a supporter of the legislation and collaborator on the bill, hopes the timing will allow the bill's sponsors to expand on provisions that were included last year's farm bill.
"We applaud Senator Harkin and Representative Walz and their co-sponsors for reintroducing this legislation and for championing the needs of beginning farmers as Congress heads into another Farm Bill," says Juli Obudzinski, NSAC policy associate. "The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act helps new farmers get started in agriculture, and invests in programs that have a proven track record of equipping farmers with the tools and skills they need to be successful in their farming career."
More specifically, the bill will create a microloan program to offer loans up to $35,000 to farmers seeking capital to cover start-up costs. The bill would also offer increased flexibility in meeting loan eligibility requirements for FSA loans to purchase farmland.
The Down Payment Loan program would also be continued and improved upon, and the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program would also be modified to give priority to preserving farmland that is accessible and affordable to new farmers.
Funding would be renewed for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which provides grants to organizations to provide farmer training. Since 2008 Farm Bill expired, funding has not been available for the program.
Lastly, the bill offers expanded opportunities for military veterans interested in agriculture. A new Veterans Agricultural Liaison position would be created within the USDA to help veterans find resources for starting an ag operation.
"I'm hearing of more and more people all across America who want to farm or start careers in agriculture," said Rep. Peterson, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee. "Supporting beginning farmers and ranchers is a win-win for rural America and the entire country."
Along with Peterson, Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., Chris Gibson, R-N.Y. have also signed on in the House, and Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Bob Casey, D-Penn., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Al Franken, D-Minn., are co-sponsors in the Senate.