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Erin Brown / Grand Vale Creative

ND bill to help beginning farmers set for Jan. 29 hearing

BISMARCK, N.D. — Ross Lockhart says he normally doesn't get involved in politics. But Lockhart, who operates his family Heart and Soil Farm near Grandin, N.D., is making an exception for proposed North Dakota legislation that would help beginning farmers gain access to land.

"I just hear over and over again, that beginning farmers have a major challenge getting land," said Lockhart.

Lockhart will testify in support of House Bill 1476, scheduled to be heard by the Finance and Taxation Committee at 10 a.m. Jan. 29 at the State Capitol in Bismarck.

Read the bill, which has bipartisan support, at https://www.legis.nd.gov/assembly/66-2019/documents/19-0781-03000.pdf.

It's an axiom of Upper Midwest agriculture that access to farmland is a major challenge for beginning farmers, especially ones without a strong connection to ag. Landowners often prefer to rent to relatives or to established farmers with a proven track record and who frequently have more financial resources.

"It just can be so difficult to get land," said Lockhart, who began farming in 2013 and who, as a leader of the Northern Small Farm Alliance, regularly visits with small and beginning farmers.

HB 1476 would seek to mitigate that difficulty by making owners of "agricultural assets" (including land, livestock, machinery and buildings) eligible for an income tax credit if they rent or sell those assets to a qualified beginning farmer.

Though the proposal would cut into government tax receipts, at least initially, the state's economy ultimately would benefit as more young farm families begin to operate, Lockhart aid.

The proposed legislation has a second component, as well: Beginning farmers who enroll in a financial management course would be eligible for a tax credit equal to the amount of the training course.

Lockhart described this component as "workforce development."

Several Midwest states already have similar legislation that provides tax breaks to help young farmers. In 2017, Minnesota passed its version of the legislation, in part because of the active support of the Central Minnesota Young Farmers Coalition, which has members in nine countries.

Lockhart said he visited last year with members of that group, encouraging him to pursue similar legislation this year in North Dakota.

The average age of North Dakota farmers is about 59, and many are expected to retire or phase out off farming in the next few years. That increases the importance of encouraging young and beginning farmers get started, Lockhart said.

"I think this (HB 1476) can help," he said.