Following up on recent Census of Agriculture data revealing 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 to small and midsize farms.
“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," 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 expanded collection of valuable market news information. USDA is also introducing a series of education tools focusing on opportunities for farmers engaged in local and regional food systems. In addition, USDA field staff will be boosting their outreach efforts to small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers, USDA said.
USDA has created a Learning Guide Series for small and mid-sized producers to help them navigate available USDA resources. The first in this series will be for small and mid-sized livestock and poultry producers. (Available here.) Additional learning guides will be released later this year.
Vilsack also shared the agency plans to improve market news reporting including price, volume, supply and demand date for products such as grass-fed beef and other local food products. Vilsack said he plans to work within the department to collect the data this spring or summer.
“Local food prices and volume are important to mid-size 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 would allow for improved access to capital. First, the microloan programs will be increased to $50,000 limits. Since its inception late last year nearly 5,000 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 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 (CSAs), are now eligible for a waiver from the requirement that they carry crop insurance or NAP coverage when they apply for a FSFL loan. FSFL can also be used to finance hay barns and grain bins.
USDA also announced the creation of Whole Farm Diversified Risk Management revenue insurance, which was called for under the farm bill, but through the foresight of the agency 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 also provides assistance and outreach to help small and mid-sized farmers plan and prepare for implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act.