Sixty years ago, the average age of the U.S. farmer ranged from the mid to upper 30s. Since then, the average age has risen steadily; 45 years old in 1974 and 58 years old in 2007. Perhaps of more concern is fewer young people are entering the field of agriculture as a career choice, leaving the industry—and the world—concerned about who will feed the world in the years ahead.

In response to the problem, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has responded with many programs designed to entice youth into a career of farming. Under its direct operating loan program, USDA also makes loans to rural youth to establish and operate income-producing projects of modest size in connection with their participation in 4-H clubs, FFA, and similar organizations.

Guaranteed loans are made through private lenders with a guarantee of up to 95 percent of the loss of principal and interest. Direct and guaranteed operating loans can be used to purchase livestock, equipment, feed, seed, and other material essential to a farm or ranch operation.

USDA also provides assistance to beginning farmers and ranchers under its Direct Farm Ownership Down Payment Loan Program, and provides retiring farmers the opportunity to transfer their land to future generations of farmers and ranchers. In addition, USDA targets a portion of its direct and guaranteed operating loan and farm ownership loan funds to beginning farmers and ranchers and Socially Disadvantaged Applicants (SDAs).

Shortage remains

But in spite of these programs, agricultural experts and consultants say the trend of aging farmers continues and a shortage of young men and women interested in carrying on the farming tradition remains. In Texas, in an effort to boost support for young farmers, the Legislature and officials at the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) teamed up to develop two programs designed to help provide financial incentive for qualifying individuals. The first is a program designed to reduce the loan interest rate for young farmers or ranchers who are starting or expanding agricultural businesses in Texas.

Under terms of the program, grant funds are to be used to assist in the creation or expansion of agricultural enterprises by providing lenders an additional source of funds. The program encourages low interest commercial lending for agricultural purposes. The maximum loan under the program is $500,000.

The second and more common type of state assistance includes agricultural grants for young farmers. Awarded in amounts up to $10,000 each, the young farmer grants are available to agricultural producers between the ages of 18 and 45 who will create or expand agricultural businesses in Texas. Eligible applicants must be able to make dollar-for-dollar matching expenditures to sustain, create or enhance agricultural operations. Awards range from $5,000 to $10,000 and are funded by agricultural vehicle registration fees paid for by farmers.

Last week, TDA Commissioner Todd Staples announced the latest round of grants and the names of those receiving them. They include: Chris Alan Braden of Tom Green County for crop development; Gregorio Ayala of Hidalgo County for viticulture; Douglas J. Wilde of Concho Valley  for crop development; Dwynne M. Igau of Lago Vista for a horticulture project; Derreck M. Maxey, Falls County for acquisition of livestock; Kenneth Joe Johnson of Lockhart for egg production; Daniel L. Meyer of Falls County for livestock; Matthew R. Kordzik of Gillispie County for livestock; Johanna Spreen Waller of Hempstead for livestock; Jamie D. Craddock of Houston for livestock; Dan S. McLaughlin of Mason for viticulture; James Sutton Page of Tom Green County for crop development; Christian H. Seger of Waller for livestock; Dennis R. Bates of Rising Star for crop & livestock projects; and Joe R. Patranella of Brazos County for livestock.

The 16 grants awarded to young farmers and ranchers total $148,700.

“As today’s farmers and ranchers near retirement, we must find ways to foster a younger generation that will be tasked with feeding a growing population,” Staples said last week. “The Young Farmer Grant Program was created and funded by Texas farmers and ranchers to ensure the future prosperity of their industry by helping younger generations become established and successful in agriculture.”

According to USDA, the average age of Texas farmers and ranchers is 57, with only 6 percent of them under the age of 35.

In 2009, the 81st Texas Legislature approved the Texas Department of Agriculture’s proposal to establish the first-of-its-kind Young Farmer Grant Program. Two rounds of awards are granted each year. Applications for the next round of Young Farmer Grants will be accepted beginning in April 2013. The deadline for applying is May 3, 2013.