AFTER recently released "Census of Agriculture" data revealed an eroding middle class in farming, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the agency plans to make a concerted effort to use and expand resources and assistance for small and midsize farms.
"We've adjusted policies, strengthened programs and intensified outreach to meet the needs of small and midsized producers. These producers are critical to our country's agricultural and economic future," Vilsack said.
Efforts include improved access to USDA resources, revised risk management tools that better fit the needs of smaller producers, additional support for hoop houses and expanding the collection of valuable market news information.
USDA is also introducing a series of educational tools focused on opportunities for farmers engaged in local and regional food systems.
In addition, USDA field staff will boost their outreach efforts to small and midsized farmers and ranchers, the agency said.
USDA has created a learning guide series to help small and midsized producers navigate available USDA resources. The first in this series will be for small and midsized livestock and poultry producers. Additional learning guides will be released later this year.
Vilsack said the agency plans to improve market news reporting, including for price, volume, supply and demand data for products such as grass-fed beef and other local food products. Vilsack said he plans to work within USDA to collect the data this spring or summer.
"Local food prices and volume are important to midsize producers, who could look upon this as a source for real-time data," he said. "This would allow producers to more accurately and effectively price their product."
Another major component of the announcement is providing improved access to capital. First, the agency's microloan program limits will be increased to $50,000. Since its inception late last year, 4,900 loans have provided $97 million in credit.
Changes were also announced for the Farm Storage Facility Loan program, which traditionally has provided assistance in accessing credit for bins and barns but also required recipients to be enrolled in the federal crop insurance program.
Now, midsized fruit and vegetable producers can access the program for cold storage and related equipment such as wash and pack stations. Diversified and smaller fruit and vegetable producers, including community-supported agriculture producers, also are now eligible for a waiver from the requirement that they carry crop insurance or Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program coverage when they apply for a storage facility loan. This loan can be used to finance hay barns and grain bins as well.
USDA announced the creation of Whole Farm Diversified Risk Management revenue insurance, which was called for under the farm bill but, through the agency's foresight, was developed to be rolled out now.
Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said the pilot program in the 2015 crop insurance year will be appropriate for highly diversified farms.
"Good crop and revenue insurance policies exist for agricultural monocultures, but not diversified operations, which keeps diversified growers uninsured and at a competitive disadvantage. It is our ardent hope that this emerging product will close that gap and begin to recognize the very considerable risk management benefits of crop and enterprise diversification," Hoefner said.
The announcement said USDA will also provide assistance and outreach to help small and midsized farmers plan and prepare for implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
USDA has launched pilot projects in Michigan, Wisconsin, Montana, Pennsylvania and Missouri to help small and midsized farmers achieve good agricultural practice certification. Under these pilot programs, producers will be able to share the costs and fees associated with the certification process as a group.