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Erin Brown / Grand Vale Creative

So tough to get started in farming

There are only a few things that everyone in modern agriculture agrees on. We all dislike food waste. We all stress farm safety. We all value timely rains.

And we all agree that it's extremely difficult to get started in farming or ranching without an "in" — an established farmer or farm couple who provides access to land. Usually, the connection is a relative, most often a parent or grandparent, aunt or uncle. Occasionally the tie is a farm couple nearing retirement without children of their own or whose children aren't interested in farming.

It's not impossible to start farming without a connection; I've written about a few such farmers in the past. But doing so requires exceptional determination and initiative, and frankly, they're very much the exception. Just getting started is hard enough; doing it on your own is doubly or triply so.

Reflecting that, there's a fairly strong consensus, both in and out of agriculture, that government policies and programs to help farmers get started are good and desirable.

One example: Last year Minnesota lawmakers approved a program giving landowners a state income tax credit when they sell or rent land or other ag assets to beginning farmers.

The program's downside: The state government collects less tax money, at least initially.

Its upside: More young farmers strengthen farm towns economically and socially.

Decide for yourself if the benefits outweigh the downside of that legislation. But I'm fairly sure that most people in production agriculture would agree that, on balance, it's a good thing, at least in theory.

An aside: "Young" and "beginning" are elastic, hard-to-define terms, for me anyway.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a "beginning" farmer as one who's been farming less than 10 years. That seems a bit high to me — someone who's been farming eight or nine years is still a beginner? — but I won't argue with USDA.

As for defining "young," well, some farm groups and farm organization use 35 as the cut-off. Under 35 and you're young, above 35 and you're not. Make up your own mind if that's the best age to use.

Questions

But those are side issues. There are, I think, more fundamental questions to ask:

• Should young, would-be farmers without an "in" receive more government help than young, would-be farmers with a connection? Would that be fair? Would that be possible?

• To what extent does federal crop insurance help established farmers at the expense of young, beginning farmers? Though there's widespread agreement that federal crop insurance props up land values, which works against beginning farmers who hope to buy or rent the land, really smart people with advanced degrees hold differing views on the extent of that impact.

• How much responsibility do state and federal governments have to help beginning farmers?

• Do established farmers have any responsibility to beginning farmers who aren't relatives?

I don't have the answers; I'm simply asking the questions.

I've written regularly in the past about young, beginning farmers and the challenges they face. I'll continue to do so.

And I continue to value the thoughts and concerns of people who want to enter farming or recently have. If you're a would-be or beginning farmer, or know someone who is, drop me a line, jknutson@agweek.com.

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