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Secretary's Column: Growing Opportunity for Small and Mid-Sized Farmers and Ranchers

Posted by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Conservation Food and Nutrition Farming
Mar 14, 2014

The recent Census of Agriculture shows that there is tremendous potential for growth among the smaller producers that make up the middle of American agriculture, but they need our support to get there.

That can mean a lot of different things. Some small and mid-sized farms and ranches are happy just the way they are, and simply need stability to help them keep afloat during tough times. Others want to grow and expand, but don’t know how to access support that meets their specific needs.

Recognizing these challenges, we have launched a new package of education, credit, technical assistance, and marketing tools and resources geared specifically to small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers.

One major challenge that can make or break an operation is access to capital, so USDA has recently updated some of our loan programs to make them more accessible and navigable for small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers.

For example, our hoop house cost share program is now available in all 50 states, helping small and mid-sized farmers produce and sell more over an extended growing season. Soon, we’ll make an additional $15 million available to help farmers in persistent poverty areas in 19 states build hoop houses.

Our new microloan program allows small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers to use a simplified application process to apply for up to $35,000 in loans. So far, we’ve helped more than 4,900 farmers and ranchers access capital through the program—to the tune of $97 million.

One of many success stories that has come out of this program is that of a Native American beginning rancher in Washington State. He operates in a remote area where commercial lending is not easily accessible. Thanks to the microloan program, he was able to receive a loan to purchase cattle and was paired with a more seasoned mentor to provide council and support during his first years of ranching.

We’ve also made some changes to the Farm Storage Facility Loan program to make it more accessible and better tailored to the needs of smaller producers. Fruit and vegetable farmers can now use the program to purchase wash and pack stations along with their cold storage equipment, improving food safety and efficiency on the farm. In addition, diversified producers like those selling Community Supported Agriculture shares are eligible for a waiver to the requirement they carry crop insurance or NAP coverage when they apply, if those products aren’t right for their business model.

Equally important to the viability of an operation is access to markets. We’ve made some changes in this area, too, with the goal of helping small and mid-sized farms and ranches find and break into new markets. Market News, which provides real time price, volume, supply and demand information, has expanded to include data on grass-fed beef and local foods—valuable to folks engaged in those marketplaces.

We’ve also hired seven new Farm to School regional coordinators to help farmers and ranchers tap into the growing potential in the school food market. In school year 2011-2012—before USDA had even established a formal Farm to School program—schools spent nearly $355 million on food grown by their local farmers and ranchers, and more than half of schools at the time planned to spend even more in the coming year.

Opportunities for small and mid-sized farms span the meal tray. Fruits and vegetables, fluid milk and baked goods are among the most popular, but schools are interested in increasing purchases of meat, poultry and eggs as well. Our coordinators are on the ground helping farmers and ranchers do business directly with school customers, a move that supports both healthy foods in schools and a healthy farm economy. Our work to support these and other local and regional food systems at USDA continues to be coordinated and strengthened through our Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.

These changes are just a start. We must do more to foster and protect the wide diversity of thriving farms and ranches across rural America. We will continue to ensure that our programs and policies meet the evolving needs of American agriculture, and will adjust policies and strengthen outreach to better reach small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers. With you, we will build an agricultural landscape where there is room and opportunity for all.