A Policy Agenda to Support Beginning Farmers

The following is drawn from remarks made to the Sustainable Agriculture & Food System Funders at their policy briefing in Des Moines, Iowa.

Since the Center for Rural Affairs began, we have been engaged in the debate over who will steward the land a generation hence.

In the last two farm bills, we helped pass new policy to support beginners. Wins included training programs, set-asides within farm conservation and financing programs, and increased support for new market development. These are good building blocks for a beginning farmer policy agenda.

Despite these gains, the share of beginning farmers continues to decline. Data shows beginners are more likely to farm smaller acreages and have smaller farm incomes – sometimes much smaller.

Meanwhile, more than 60% of all farmers are 55 or older, and more than 25% are 65 or older. An estimated 400 million acres of farmland will also change hands in the next 20 years.

Given this, why hasn’t the number of beginners increased? We believe the answer lies in the structure of agriculture.

Without real limits on government support for the largest commodity farms, beginning and smaller farms are place at a disadvantage. The limits must include traditional commodity programs as well as crop insurance subsidies. Under current law, if one operation farmed the entire state of Iowa, the federal government would subsidize its crop insurance on every single acre.

Our research shows this subsidy is bid into the value of farmland. This keeps land out of reach for beginners. By subsidizing the key risk management tool used by farms, we help them grow larger and larger. Until we address this, beginners will struggle to access the land needed to create sustainable operations.

We must also reform livestock markets and guarantee contract fairness. The Center first called for such reform in the 1990s. Hogs were once the quintessential “mortgage lifter” for a new farmer who could provide labor and skilled management. Vertical integration has now left many beginners in the unfair position of taking on significant debt to raise hogs on contract.

Livestock policy reform should include a ban on meatpacker ownership of livestock, and should limit practices packers use to manipulate the market. Without these changes, we risk writing off commodity livestock as a viable economic strategy for beginning farmers.

Corporate control of markets also affects other farm commodities. A small handful of multinational corporations now control most farm inputs, commodity purchases, and even segments of the organic market.

In recent years, some sustainable and family farm advocates have suggested it is time to stop fighting for policy reform to address these fundamental issues.

You won’t find the Center among these groups. We must keep fighting to fix the underlying policy structure if small and beginning farmers and ranchers are to succeed. Doing so is critical to creating a rural future that includes family-scale farms and ranches on the landscape stewarding our natural resources for the next generation.

Feature image: Feeding cattle hay in winter near Jackson, Wyoming. Photo by Jeff Vanuga