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USDA pushes to help young farmers

The average age of U.S. farmers has risen to 58, increasing the need to bring in a fresh crop of producers.

Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is stepping up its efforts. USDA will “prioritize (spending) $5.6 billion over the next two years” in its programs and services that help new and beginning producers, with the push including a new, specially designed web tool.

“We’re super-excited about it,” says Eric Hansen, policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based National Young Farmers Coalition. His work includes helping young farmers understand and utilize USDA resources.

The new USDA effort aims for a 6.6 percent increase in beginning farmer participation with key USDA programs established or strengthened by the 2014 farm bill. The programs help producers start or expand, develop new markets, improve their farming and conservation practices and enhance their access to training and education.

USDA, and the Obama administration in general, has always wanted to help beginning farmers. The new push is a tangible, thought-out attempt to do so, Hansen says.

“It’s great to see some concrete numbers and thoughts about funding,” he says. USDA “figured out what programs they want to be focusing on. I really appreciate the detail with which they dove into this challenge.”

USDA promises to provide quarterly updates on its progress toward meeting its goal. A full explanation of the investment targets, benchmarks and outcomes is available at usda.gov.

Most people involved in agriculture say farm profitability — for example, whether would-be farmers and ranchers could support themselves and their families — ultimately will determine agriculture’s ability to attract young and beginning farmers.

Farm profitability is “a concern,” Hansen says. “But I’m hopeful (the new USDA push) will move the needle some. It’s helping to remove some of the other barriers.”

USDA says the new web tool was designed from feedback by new and beginning farmers and ranchers nationwide. It features advice and guidance on everything from writing a business plan to filing taxes. Visit usda.gov/newfarmers to see the tool.

USDA also is offering a “Discovery Tool,” in which farmers answer a series of questions about their operation to build a personalized set of recommendations of the programs and services that could meet their needs.

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