There are indications from leaders in Congress that significant action on the next farm bill will happen in early 2018. Given the number of bills on Congress’ plate for 2018, this timeline could certainly change, but it is important to highlight some bills that have been introduced for inclusion in the farm bill that would be very beneficial for Maine farmers.
We previously wrote about one of these bills, the Local FARMS Act, which was introduced by Maine’s own Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) along with others in October 2017. Another important bill is the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2017, which was introduced on November 8, 2017 by Tim Walz (D-MN) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE). Maine Farmland Trust is proud to support this legislation because it would ensure that beginning farmers have better access to farmland, equitable access to financial capital and federal crop insurance, and encourage a commitment to conservation and stewardship.
In our work, one of the biggest challenges we face is that Maine farmers age 65 and older own or manage 36% of the farms in Maine, but over 90% of them do not have identified successors. This means that over the next decade the future of over 400,000 acres of land in Maine is uncertain. And on the national level, nearly 100 million acres of farmland (enough to support nearly 250,000 family farms) is set to change hands over the next five years – during the course of the next farm bill. At the same time, aspiring farmers both in Maine and nationwide are facing significant barriers to success in agriculture, including the limited availability of affordable and desirable farmland, challenges in acquiring start-up capital and financing, and limited access to hands-on training and risk management tools. Many of MFT’s programs, including Maine FarmLink, our Purchased Easement Program, and the support services we provide to beginning farmers are focused on addressing these challenges. But our federal policies must also make it possible for the next generation of American farmers to support their families, revitalize rural communities, and protect our shared natural resources for generations to come.
The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act lays out a national strategy for addressing these long-standing entry barriers for beginning farmers while providing the tools that the next generation of farmers needs for economic success. The strategy outlined in the legislation includes the following measures:
- Expanding beginning farmers’ access to affordable land through the prioritization of Agricultural Land Easements (ALE) projects that maintain agricultural farm viability and include affordability protections, such as an option to purchase at agricultural value (OPAV). The bill would also direct the National Agricultural Statistics Service to collect and report data and analysis on farmland ownership, tenure, transition, barriers to entry, and the profitability and viability of beginning farmers.
- Empowering new farmers with the skills to succeed in today’s agricultural economy by securing permanent support of $50 million a year in funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) to ensure long-term investments in new farmer training, particularly those programs focused on food safety training, land access, farm transition, and succession planning. The bill would also create a new matched savings asset-building and financial training Individual Development Account program. In addition, the legislation would increase funding for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program to $5 million per year to support 1:1 technical assistance and start-up capital to foster new farm businesses.
- Ensuring equitable access to financial capital and federal crop insurance by ensuring farmers are able to finance new farm purchases by raising the cap on FSA Direct Ownership Loans to $500,000, adjusted annually by regional farmland inflation rates. The bill would also expand beginning farmer crop insurance incentives to all new farmers under 10 years, and create an on-ramp to Federal Crop Insurance for beginning farmers with no revenue history through the Non-insured Crop Assistance Program.
- Encourage commitment to conservation and stewardship across generations by increasing beginning and socially disadvantaged farmer participation in working land conservation programs through the increase of the existing set-aside from 5% to 15% within both the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The bill would also simplify the EQIP Advance Payment Option to ensure automatic enrollment for both beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.
The full text of the bill can be found HERE.
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 American Farmland Trust (2016). Gaining Insights, Gaining Access. Northampton, MA: American Farmland Trust. Retrieved from http://www.farmlandinfo.org/sites/default/files/AFT_ME-FS_C_GainingInsight_GainingAccess.pdf.