Last Chance in this Farm Bill for Beginning Farmers and Our Farmland


 

Today over 40% of farmland is rented, leaving farmers at the mercy of their landlords and disincentivizing long-term investments in infrastructure and ecosystems. It’s time for federal policy that sees our remaining farmland as a public good.

 

Our farm bill has expired, and with it the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) has too. BFRDP is a critical program providing new farmers with skill-based training and business planning opportunities, and its defunding, even temporarily, is a significant blow. The immediate and technical challenges BFRDP is designed to address, however, pale in comparison to the entrenched structural barriers that characterize the land access dilemma for the next generation. New farmers consistently report land access as their most significant challenge. Gaining access to farmland requires social mobility, financial capital, and status in society that technical capacity alone does not provide.[1]

The nearly 100 million acres of U.S. farmland that the USDA estimates will change hands during the five-year lifetime of our next farm bill is unlikely to transfer to beginning family farmers without new policy interventions. [2] We have one last chance, as the final version of the farm bill is negotiated in Congressional conference committee, to rebuild the BFRDP and other vital programs to ensure effective farmland transfer and secure long-term land tenure for beginning farmers.

A policy brief published by the Berkeley Food Institute asks policy makers to evaluate if policy interventions “only support a narrow set of individual farmers, or if they help maintain existing farmland and transition it to beginning farmers for the greater public good.” This brief, by researchers Adam Calo and myself, outlines three major needs policymakers should consider “to increase land access and tenure for a broad range of beginning farmers,” and makes specific policy recommendations to address each.

Beginning farmers need financial resources to farm. Farm bill funding is mostly captured by agribusiness interests, leaving little to trickle down to newer or smaller family operations. As agricultural land prices continue to rise, nearly tripling in the last 15 years, and net farm income declines, fewer new farmers can access high start up capital needs or survive agriculture’s notoriously low and slow returns. And when budget belt-tighteners in Washington look for “savings,” the small handful of programs specifically designed to reach new farmers are often among the first to be targeted.

Retiring farmers need incentives to transfer land to beginning farmers. Land is often an established farmer’s greatest asset and only retirement plan. Farmland is often purchased by an investor or developer, leaving the vast majority of new farmers to rent land that they cannot afford to buy. Today over 40% of U.S. farmland is rented. In precarious and insecure land tenure arrangements, farmers are increasingly at the mercy of their landlords and it’s hard to justify long-term investments in infrastructure and ecosystems when farmers may not reap the future rewards.

The US needs to protect farmland as a public good. Municipalities could engage in the public acquisition and management of preserved farmlands, prioritizing farmers who have been historically excluded from the ability to access and own land.

We urgently need a better farm bill. During the drafting of the 2018 Farm Bill, three beginning farmer bills (HR 4316, HR 4201, and S 2762) proposed land access provisions and gained bipartisan support, only to be largely ignored in the final House bill, with some S 2762 provisions included only in the Senate version. Inclusion of the specific research-supported provisions recommended in this policy brief would be an important step in addressing land access dilemmas new farmers face.

Of the many privileges in my life, access to land has been an especially great one. I am among the shrinking 1% of Americans who grew up on a farm. When I was a farmer, I was lucky: my landlord was my mother. The rent was reasonable and the land suitable. I hope in my lifetime to see even greater public commitments to family farmers, such as universal basic income for new farmers, land re-transfer to African American and Native American farmers, re-zoning and tax incentives so that my mom can keep her land working beyond her lifetime, and farmland valued like national parks. Then maybe it won’t just be the lucky and privileged who can access the American farming dream.

 

The author leased land from her mother, a dairy goat farmer, for seven years to operate a pastured livestock and vegetable CSA.

 

Margiana Petersen-Rockney grew up on a goat farm, operated her own farm for seven years, and is currently a PhD student studying beginning farmers and climate change adaptation at UC Berkeley.

 

[1] Increasingly, beginning farmers are members of underrepresented groups (e.g., women, immigrants, veterans, racial/ethnic minorities, LGBTQ, and young farmers) who face greater barriers to securing quality and affordable farmland.

[2] Loss of land to development and investors, the favoring of large-scale industrial agriculture, and a lack of cohesive rural policies combine to force farmers into bankruptcy, migration, and, in some cases, impossible debt burdens.

 

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