New questions raised about USDA’s beginning farmer and rancher programs

Farm Forum

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has long talked about providing assistance to beginning farmers and ranchers and once suggested a goal of adding 100,000 new farmers by 2012. However, his department “lacked effective performance goals and measures, as well as direction, coordination, and monitoring to ensure that this initiative was effectively accomplished,” according to a new audit report released from USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

USDA agencies provided significant financial and technical support to beginning farmers and ranchers, totaling approximately $3.9 billion in FYs 2012 and 2013 – the time period covered by the audit. However, “the Department had not developed an integrated and coordinated strategy to ensure that the Secretary’s direction was effectively implemented during the time period of this review,” the report notes.

“This has been a longstanding problem,” OIG points out. In 1982 and again in 2007, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the Department needed to measure its effectiveness for its beginning farmers and ranchers assistance.

The OIG report is especially critical of USDA’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach (OAO), which was created as part of the 2008 Farm Bill and established in 2009. That bill mandated specific OAO duties, among which was to measure the outcomes of USDA’s programs and activities related to beginning farmers and ranchers.

After 5 years of existence, “OAO officials could not provide us with evidence supporting how they have accomplished four of the seven essential duties mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill,” the report notes.

One area where OAO failed to deliver involved USDA’s Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers, first created in 1992. The committee was established to provide the Secretary advice on the development of coordinated beginning farmers assistance; methods for maximizing new farming and ranching opportunities; methods of encouraging States to participate; administration of the program; and other methods of creating new farming or ranching opportunities. It was expected that the committee, comprised primarily of non-USDA members, would meet annually.

The Farm Service Agency oversaw the committee from its first meeting on August 31, 1999 until 2009 when OAO took over responsibility for the committee. During the period that FSA was in charge, the committee met every year, except 2003, and made over 100 recommendations to the Secretary, of which USDA acted on nearly half.

But OIG learned that, since OAO assumed oversight responsibility, it has not convened the Advisory Committee on a regular basis. Since 2009, the Advisory Committee has met three times, once in 2010 and twice in 2014.

This occurred because “the Department had not sufficiently monitored OAO’s functions to ensure the committee was meeting regularly. In addition, the Department did not require OAO to put forth policy and procedures stating how it would oversee the committee,” according to OIG.

OAO officials told OIG that the committee would have met earlier than 2014, but they did not want to convene the meeting while members’ terms were expiring. When FSA oversaw this committee, FSA held meetings even when committee members’ tenures were expiring, and had the committee elect new members.

Despite all of the ongoing problems noted in the OIG report, investigators expressed optimism that “USDA has started to move in the right direction,” primarily as a result of Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden’s involvement.

“In early 2014, the Deputy Secretary brought together representatives from across the Department to focus on assisting beginning farmers. At the time of audit fieldwork, the goals and objectives of this effort had not been defined, but we are encouraged by the support of top-level USDA officials.” The full report is available at