Farm Bill programs provide help to new farmers

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Farm Forum

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Years on the family farm and an agriculture economics degree have taught Aaron Steckler he’s at an advantage when it comes to his farming career.

“It’s kind of tough for a young guy to go and start out right now,” said his dad, John Steckler. “It’s virtually impossible unless you have someone to help you along.”

To help his 24-year-old son to learn the business, John Steckler has pushed his son to do a few things on his own – buying a few of his own cows and renting some of his own crop land.

To encourage the next generation of farmers, lawmakers made changes to the 2014 farm bill that are meant to help people like Aaron Steckler, who are taking on a larger role in the family business, and those who are getting started without the benefit of a family farm.

“New and beginning farmers are the future of American agriculture,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Krysta Harden said in a statement. “The average age of an American farmer is 58 and rising, so we must help new farmers get started if America is going to continue feeding the world and maintain a strong agriculture economy.”

North Dakota Farmers Union President Mark Watne told The Bismarck Tribune (http://bit.ly/1qO5s8i ) that one of the biggest challenges for young and beginning farmers is access to capital.

“What they really need is financing,” he said.

Many don’t have the equity it takes to get started.

“The biggest challenge right now is there is a lot of opportunity in agriculture … but wherever there’s good opportunity, there’s a lot of competition. It makes getting started a lot harder,” Aaron Steckler said.

Watne said the amount varies from farm to farm but for an 1,800-acre grain farm, it takes upwards of $1 million to get started. Even those who have a family farm to go back to still need capital for machinery, he said.

“With 500 to 1,000 acres, it’s hard to generate enough income to make a living on without having another job,” Watne said.

Federal Farm Service Agency loans have always been more difficult for beginning farmers to access. Watne said some of the most useful program changes for beginning farmers from the farm bill include expanded eligibility and no term limits on guaranteed loans, lower interest rates and expansion of micro-loan programs that are easier to access than traditional Direct Farm Operating Loans.

Another asset is the reauthorization of the Conservation Reserve Program Transition Incentive Program, which gives two extra years of CRP payments to retiring farmers who transition their expiring CRP land to beginning farmers, Watne said.

According to the National Young Farmers Coalition, a young farmer advocacy group, other farm bill benefits to beginning farmers include:

• Expanded access to crop insurance.

• Increased funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which finances groups that provide farmer education programs.

• Authorization of a matched-savings program for those saving up to buy farms. Under the program, USDA would work with a nonprofit or bank and match the monthly savings that a beginning farmer puts into an account with federal funds.

The money then could be used to purchase land or other capital. The program, however, will require further congressional action to fund.

• Increased land price ceilings for the Down Payment Loan Program, an FSA program that helps new farmers with a down payment when purchasing land. The ceiling limit was moved from $500,000 to $667,000, which means potential land buyers will still be able to access the program even when the land is valued up to $667,000.

• More cash provided up front, rather than reimbursed later, for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides financial incentives for farmers who improve their farm’s ecological conservation systems.

Aaron Steckler said he wants to have a good start as a farmer and continue the family business, and the programs under the farm bill could help. Even if agriculture wasn’t as lucrative as it is now, he said, he would still be back on the family farm.

“I can’t think of anything else I really love to do,” he said.