USDA starts team to help beginning farmers, ranchers

USDA is starting a new team to better serve beginning farmers and ranchers.

The 2018 Farm Bill directed the agency to name national and state coordinators to help new producers navigate existing programs more easily. Goals include training staff at the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Risk Management Agency and at USDA Rural Development to help new producers conveniently access the agencies’ offerings.

USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher coordinators include Sarah Campbell, national; Denise Adkins, Idaho; Kathy Ferge, Oregon; and Cara McNab, Washington.

“We have been focused on helping new farmers and ranchers, and a lot of things are word-of-mouth,” Adkins, with the NRCS Idaho state office in Boise, said in an interview. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher program aims to “give a broader understanding of what each agency does and how it can help.”

For example, a farmer interested in an NRCS grant program that can help pay for an efficiency upgrade such as a new sprinkler setup could find out about it while interacting with another USDA agency, whether at a state or field office.

“Training is going to drive a lot of that,” Adkins said. In-house instruction is gaining momentum after being slowed by COVID-19.

NRCS Idaho spokeswoman Mindi Rambo said public outreach will follow, including preparation of educational materials available to people interacting with USDA, or participating in university extension courses or other agriculture events.

Need for a coordinated approach is driven in part by demographics, as the average age of a U.S. farmer increased by 1.2 years to 57.5 between 2012 and 2017, according to the latest Census of Agriculture, which also said 27% of farmers had less than 10 years of experience.

FSA in Idaho also is involved in Beginning Farmer and Rancher training and outreach.

“There are almost 25,000 farm operations in Idaho, and of that, the number of producers age 45 and below is about 5,000,” FSA Idaho State Executive Director Tom Dayley said.

He said the state’s young-producer headcount rose nearly 13.7%, from 4,106 as of the 2012 Census of Ag to 4,668 in 2017.

“We are moving in the right direction clearly, but it still shows that we need to figure out a way to make it (farming) attractive, but once it is attractive to a younger person as a career choice, facilitate them to be able to make that choice,” Dayley said.

Adkins said NRCS in fiscal 2019 funded 166 contracts in Idaho to beginning farmers and ranchers, for about $5.3 million on 15,000 acres combined.

The group accounted for 45% of all NRCS Idaho contracts in 2019 and has generated 39% of applications so far in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Adkins, who has worked for NRCS since 2004, is joined on the Idaho Beginning Farmer and Rancher coordination team by Susan Smith, farm loan specialist with FSA; Anastasia Griffin, risk-management specialist with RMA, and Dale Lish, area director with USDA Rural Development.

Each state coordinator will develop beginning-farmer outreach plans, help employees to better reach and serve beginning producers, and be available themselves to assist in navigating programs.

Dayley said USDA in the new program wants to make sure personnel at the various agencies, working together, also can help young farmers and ranchers operate successfully after first accessing programs.