Preliminary data from the most recent Census of Agriculture, released last month, has USDA retooling programs to fit the changing makeup of farms and farmers in the U.S., Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday.
In a press call, Vilsack said the number of small and mid-sized farms and ranches is growing, leading to an expansion of current efforts to help such farmers succeed, and the introduction of new programs.
Vilsack announced the new and expanded programs during a keynote address at the National Farmers Union annual convention in Santa Fe, N.M.
"USDA is taking a hard look at our existing resources to ensure that they work for producers of all sizes," Vilsack said. "We've adjusted policies, strengthened programs and intensified outreach to meet the needs of small and mid-sized producers. These producers are critical to our country's agricultural and economic future."
The new programs will include expanded access to USDA's resources and revised risk management tools that Vilsack said would be better suited to smaller producers.
A closer look at the changes is below.
Access to equipment, capital
USDA is planning changes to allow more assistance to producers looking to acquire required facilities for their operations through the Farm Storage and Facility Loan Program. Hay barns, grain bins, cold storage and wash and pack stations are all examples, USDA said.
In addition, diversified and smaller fruit and vegetable producers, including Community Supported Agriculture programs, are now eligible for a waiver from the requirement that they carry crop insurance or NAP coverage when they apply for a FSFL loan.
USDA will continue to fund hoop houses through a cost share program, which began in 2010. Since then, more than 10,000 hoop houses have been contracted. The agency is expected to announce another $15 million for hoop house development in persistent poverty counties in nineteen states as part of the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative.
Microloans will also continue, which allow beginning, small and mid-sized farmers access up to $35,000 in loans using a simplified application process. Since their debut in 2013, USDA has issued more than 4,900 microloans totaling $97 million.
Vilsack said USDA is developing a whole farm insurance policy that will benefit diversified farms, particularly small and midsized fruit and vegetable growers.
Additional efforts include a review of crop insurance costs for beginning farmers and ranchers. A previously-required five percent surcharge on crop insurance premiums is also lifted under the new changes.
USDA is looking to expand marketing opportunities for small producers by increasing the number of farm to school coordinators in regional Food and Nutrition Services offices, which will improve communication between schools and producers.
Since 2013, USDA has invested nearly $10 million in Farm to School grants that support schools as they purchase from local sources.
Vilsack said with the help of the National Ag Statistics Service, USDA will provide expanded price, volume, supply and demand information through Market News.
Currently information is being collected on grass-fed beef and other local foods will be added, Vilsack said. A total rollout is expected this summer.
Data will also be collected to expand the National Farmers Market Directory to include CSAs, on-farm stores and food hubs. USDA will begin collecting data to update the directory for the 2014 season this spring.
USDA has launched pilot programs in five states to help smaller producers achieve Good Agricultural Practice certification. GAP certification indicates farmers have met food safety standards required by many retail buyers. The pilot programs are located in Michigan, Wisconsin, Montana, Pennsylvania and Missouri.
A new online guide to navigate USDA's programs is now online, available on the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food website. Additional guides will be available as the year goes on.
USDA has also launched Small Scale Solutions for Your Farm, a series of educational resources designed for both small livestock and fruit and vegetable producers. This includes tips on simple management activities such as planting cover crops to complex structural practices such as animal waste management systems or innovative irrigation devices.
Modifications as included in the farm bill
The recently-signed 2014 Farm Bill includes $100 million for the new Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which provides grants to organizations that train new farmers.
Also in the farm bill, $63 million over the next 5 years was provided for the the Value-Added Producer Grant Program, allowing USDA to target small and mid-sized family farms, beginning and socially-disadvantaged farmers, and veterans.