Talking to National Farmer Union members at their annual meeting in Santa Fe last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said USDA is rolling out new and expanded efforts to help small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers service local and regional markets.
New initiatives will connect farmers to new USDA learning guides and will enable them to participate in risk management and help them access capital easier as their farms expand.
"The recent Census of Agriculture shows tremendous growth potential for small and mid-sized producers in the American agricultural landscape," Vilsack said.
The new initiatives are designed primarily for small to mid-sized producers, but Vilsack emphasised that larger, profitable farm and ranch operations remain central to the success of U.S. Agriculture as well. But while larger farms may have access to resources, financing and safety net programs and options, smaller and mid-size farm operators are generally limited, and the new initiative is primarily designed to fill the gap for this growing sector.
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"USDA is taking a hard look at our existing resources to ensure that they work for producers of all sizes. We've adjusted policies, strengthened programs and intensified outreach to meet the needs of small and mid-sized producers. These producers are critical to our country's agricultural and economic future," Vilsack added.
Results of the recently released agriculture census, once again, indicates that the average age of the nation's farmer is continuing to rise and though young men and women are generally taking an interest in the industry, they are often faced with limitations of resources that make getting established as a new farm business difficult.
Vilsack explained to reporters later in the day at a press session that the initiatives could also provide smaller and mid-size farmers with risk management tools, help in acquiring hoop houses, and access to USDA staff and educational programs.
Through education, instruction and guidance, the initiative provides small and mid-size farm operators a chance to learn about the rising demand for locally grown products and how they can engage in regional food systems. The program also is designed to address food safety and local market opportunities.
- Open the Farm Storage and Facility Loan (FSFL) Program to small and mid-size producers of fruits and vegetables. Loans can be issued for cold storage and wash stations.
- Available funding from the popular microloan program that USDA launched last year. Loans of up to $35,000 are possible.
- Funding for the acquisition of hoop houses to aid growers by extending the growing season. Hoop houses are also environmentally and ecologically-friendly operations.
- USDA is developing a whole farm insurance policy that will better meet the needs of highly-diversified producers, particularly small and midsized fruit and vegetable growers. Using new tools provided by the Agriculture Act of 2014, USDA is working to reduce crop insurance costs for beginning farmers and ranchers. And organic producers will benefit from the elimination of a previously-required 5 percent surcharge on crop insurance premiums.
- USDA's Farm to School Program has put seven new Farm to School Coordinators on the ground in regional offices to help build direct relationships between small and mid-sized producers and school districts. One priority area for Farm to School is creating more opportunities for small and mid-sized livestock and poultry producers.
- Expanded price, volume, supply and demand information through Market News. Market News is now collecting price data on grass-fed beef to arm producers with real pricing information from the sector. Market News will soon begin collecting data about local food prices and volume, valuable to small and mid-sized producers engaged in that marketplace.
- Launched pilot projects in five states to help small and mid-sized farmers achieve Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) certification. GAP certification indicates farmers have met food safety standards required by many retail buyers. Under these pilot programs, small and mid-sized producers will be able to share the costs and fees associated with the certification process as a group.
- Access to a Learning Guide Series for small and mid-sized producers to help them navigate available USDA resources, available on the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food website. The first in this series will be for small and mid-sized livestock and poultry producers.
Program aids provided by the Agriculture Act of 2014
- Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), which provides grants to organizations that train, educate and provide outreach and technical assistance to new and beginning farmers on production, marketing, business management, legal strategies and other topics critical to running a successful operation.
- Value-Added Producer Grant Program was modified to allow USDA to better target small and mid-sized family farms, beginning and socially-disadvantaged farmers, and veterans. The Agriculture Act of 2014 provides $63 million over the next 5 years.
Planned for the fiscal 2015 Budget
- $2.5 million to provide food safety training to owners and operators of small farms, small food processors, and small fruit and vegetable vendors affected by Food Safety Modernization Act.
- $3 million for Small, Socially Disadvantaged Producers Grants Program to ensure historically underprivileged rural Americans have opportunities for cooperative development.
- $2.5 million for a new Food and Agriculture Resilience Program for Military Veterans (FARM-Vets) that promotes research, education, and Extension activity for veterans.
- $11 million for the Value-Added Producer Grants Program. The Agriculture Act of 2014 provides an additional $63 million in mandatory funding that is available until expended.
For more information on the new initiatives, check the USDA web site frequently. No time frame was provided, but USDA officials say they hope to have the first of the programs available in mid-to-late April.