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Not Your Father’s Farm Bill

Farm bill legislation approved by the Senate and awaiting debate in the House of Representatives is not your father’s typical farm bill. It’s about the future. Passing through the Senate last week, the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act (S. 3240) recognizes that U.S. farmers are aging and something needs to be done to ensure that the future of agriculture is viable. The Senate’s version includes significant measures to address this demographic predicament.

According to the Agriculture Department’s most recent census, the average age of the American farmer is 57 years old. Further, a quarter of American farmers are 65 or older. The future of American agriculture depends on the next generation of farmers and ranchers. More than any previous farm bill, this one takes direct aim at providing retiring farmers extra benefits for passing their farms on to beginning farmers.

Probably most importantly, the bill provides nearly $200 million in new funding for expanded access for crop insurance for beginning farmers. These improvements will lower the cost of crop insurance for beginning farmers, allow the Risk Management Agency to consider a beginning farmer’s previous experience in calculating their production history, and will provide additional assistance when beginning farmers face natural disasters.

Farmers like Michigan fruit producer and Farm Bureau member Ben LaCross understand the importance of this provision first hand. In a normal year, his farm produces four million pounds of cherries. Due to extremely bad weather conditions, this year he’ll be lucky to harvest 40,000 pounds – only one percent of his normal production. This level of losses is tough on any producer, but especially catastrophic for a beginning farmer who is still trying to build up equity. If S. 3240 were in existence today, Ben and others like him would have the opportunity to cover more of their crops under crop insurance, using new programs that would provide better coverage at a lower cost.

In other areas, the bill continues the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which offers education, training, outreach and mentoring programs to ensure the success of the next generation of farmers. It also increases access to capital and prioritizes the needs of beginning farmers to ensure they have access to programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, a program that is critical to farmers and ranchers striving to be good stewards of the land and trying to meet tough environmental mandates.

The bill makes significant strides in increasing lending to beginning farmers by expanding eligibility, removing term limits on guaranteed lending and providing opportunities for beginning farmers to earn direct loan access. For the first time, USDA will have the ability to create pilot programs in the Farm Loan Programs exclusively targeted to beginning farmers.

Finally, the farm bill legislation encourages older farmers to help beginning farmers get started by providing two extra years of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) participation to retiring farmers who transition their expiring CRP land to beginning farmers.

Unlike past farm bills, this one is about the future. It’s about farmers like Ben LaCross and the many other young and beginning farmers and ranchers who want to one day pass their farms to their own children.

(Tracy Taylor Grondine is director of media relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.)

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