Is the USDA Sparking a Sustainable Ag Revolution?

Federal money could especially help farms using organic practices.
A new microloan program recently announced by the USDA could help organic farmers, including those who sell directly to consumers through farmers markets, CSAs, and co-ops, finance or scale up their startups. (Photo by: Bernhard Lang/Getty Images)
Jan 30, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

For years, the dominant trend in United States farming has not been a positive one: The crop of veteran farmers is at or nearing retirement age, and the next generation is less willing to fill their shoes.

Census data has shown that the percentage of beginning farmers—those in their current farming operation for less than ten years—has declined steadily, by more than ten percent, since 1982. This is happening, in part, because the nationwide shift away from family farms to large, industrial operations means that many would-be small farmers simply cannot justify investing in a declining industry.

But a new federal policy, announced by United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week, aims to change that calculus by offering smaller loans to farmers who are just starting out. The best news? The microloans could bolster sustainable agriculture in a big way.

“This smaller microloan program really is designed to help a producer that wants to get into the direct-to-consumer sales business or wants to help provide produce to, for example, a farmer’s market,” Vilsack told the Associated Press. “It will help bolster the local and regional food system movement that is taking place.”

The low-interest microloans of up to $35,000 are designed to aid startup costs, stimulate existing family-run farms and help minority growers and military veterans who want to get into agriculture. Over the last three years, there has been a 60 percent increase in local growers who sell directly to consumers or farmers markets, Vilsack said.

Sustainable food activists had been working to include such a loan program in the next Farm Bill, according to Annette Higby, policy director at the New England Farmers Union, which works on federal food policy. She, for one, was thrilled to see the USDA implement this policy on its own, and thinks it will make a big impact. While average farm startup costs can vary wildly depending on where and how the land is acquired and the type of farming being done, Higby says the low loan amount may prevent some new farmers from going deep into credit-card debt.

“Most of their loans will go to beginning farmers,” she says. “It’s an opportunity for farms that are getting launched, that don’t need a large loan, that need a simplified application process. It can help them scale up.”

Although observers are still awaiting updated census data on U.S. agriculture, there are signs that the number of farmers may be on the rise. The USDA reports that since 2009, the Farm Services Agency has made more than 128,000 loans totaling nearly $18 billion, a record for that time frame. Of those loans, 40 percent have gone to small farmers—up from 11,000 in 2008 to 15,000 in 2011. Enrollees in agriculture programs, like those offered at Vermont’s Sterling College and the “Learn to Farm” program at The Farm School in Athol, MA, are breaking records year over year. At Sterling, Sustainable Agriculture has become the school’s most popular major, “up from 25 to 30 percent to closer to 50 percent and rising,” Sterling director of advancement Tim Patterson told The Boston Globe in 2011.

These new farmers are more likely to use sustainable practices and invest in the local economy than older farmers, according to census data. For instance, since 2002, new farms have been much less likely to specialize in commodity crops and much more likely to engage in specialty crops (fruits, nuts and vegetables) and specialized animal production, mostly cattle. These new farms, 36 percent of which are run by women, accounted for 18 percent of farm sales and just 14 percent of government payments—yet they are responsible for 27 percent of organic sales and 24 percent of direct to consumer sales ( such as farmers markets and CSA programs).

“Helping this next generation of farmers, who are more likely to use sustainable practices, is positive for both our food system and for our soil and water not only in New England, but everywhere,” Higby says.

Would a $35,000 microloan make you consider starting a farm?