* U.S. goal is to create 100,000 new farmers
* $1.8 billion in U.S. loans to beginning farmers in 2011
* Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota top states for new farmer loans
* Specialty crops, organic food a focus
By Carey Gillam
HALLSVILLE, Mo., Feb 6 Dan Pugh wishes he
had a bigger tractor and his wife Laura worries about their
chickens in the winter weather. But as new farmers putting down
roots in rural Missouri, the Pughs are counting on more rewards
than regrets in trading their city lives for the country.
A better quality of food and life are among the factors that
caused Dan, 47, to leave a career in sales last year and move
Laura, 48, and their two young children to 50-acres (20
hectares) of rolling pastureland they call Honey Creek Farm.
The Pughs will plant their first crop of organic spinach and
lettuces in the next few weeks on ground they tilled behind the
barn they converted into a two-bedroom home. They are shopping
for sheep and hogs. And though their first hives of bees
mysteriously died, Laura is determined to develop a successful
honey operation as well.
"The whole food and farming system is so out of whack," Dan
Pugh said. "We want better and we can do something to help other
people eat better."
For those who remember the American TV series, call it the
"Green Acres" effect. Fueled by an economic downturn that has
curtailed the upward mobility of many corporate jobs, general
dissatisfaction with suburban stresses and growing discontent
with what they see as the ills of industrialized agriculture,
thousands of families across the United States have left
suburban cul de sacs and headed to the countryside - forging a
new demographic of family farmer.
The U.S. government is not only monitoring the trend, it is
encouraging it - backing loans for land purchases and operating
expenses as well as grants for seminars and workshops to train
people how to be farmers. Government-backed loans to new farmers
have more than doubled in the past decade.
The goal is to reverse a worrisome trend: U.S. Census data
through 2007 showed a lack of young farmers to replace aging
operators - the average age of U.S. farmers rose from 52 in 1987
to 55 in 2007. The government hopes that new census data due
this year will show more young farmers, a factor that government
leaders say is critical for the future of food production.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has set a goal of creating
100,000 new farmers in the next few years. Department of
Agriculture programs target youth, women, Hispanics, American
Indians and returning military veterans. It does not matter if
the want-to-be farmers have agriculture in their background or
have never set foot outside the city, there are programs to help
them buy land and equipment and figure out what to grow.
"The farming population today is aging rather rapidly,"
Vilsack said in an interview. "Over 30 percent of the current
farm population is over the age of 65. We have a whole
generation that is set to retire. The question is then who will
take over those operations. We need generations of leaders in
American agriculture to continue our position as the number one
agricultural country in the world."
U.S. agriculture leaders say change is under way in
Washington to support new farm practices and they say a rural
renaissance is not only a way to add diversity to food
production but also a means for bolstering the economy and
reversing a decline in rural populations.
Beginning farmers are defined as anyone who has run a farm
or ranch for less than 10 years. There are currently more than
450,000 beginning farms, about 21 percent of the nation's 2.1
million family farms, according to the USDA. But the government
To encourage more would-be farmers, USDA's Farm Service
Agency (FSA) last year launched a "Start2Farm" website and is
heavily marketing a range of financial and educational
On Jan. 20, FSA announce a new rule to expand loan
opportunities. It also said it was expanding to all 50 states a
program that guarantees farmland purchase contracts for
beginning farmers and ranchers.
"This is to try to make sure rural America has a chance to
thrive economically," said Chris Beyerhelm, FSA's deputy
administrator for farm loan programs. "This is a focus of this
Loan programs for beginning farmers and ranchers were
introduced in 1992 but had little impact. So the 2008 Farm Bill
greatly expanded assistance to include loans, commodity
payments, conservation payments, and training programs. Since
2008, the number of loans to beginning farmers and ranchers has
climbed from just over 9,000 to more than 15,000.
Last year, the FSA issued obligations totaling $1.77 billion
to new farmers and ranchers, up from $1.59 billion in 2009, $1.2
billion in 2008 and $839.5 million in 2002.
Farmers in Iowa, the largest U.S. corn-producing state,
received the most - last year new Iowa farmers got $118.6
million in beginning farmer program loans. New farmers in
Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arkansas are other
But every U.S. state is represented in the disbursements
that can go to children of farmers who want to return to a
family farm, as well as people who have no farming background or
Howard Buffett, the son of billionaire investor Warren
Buffett, runs a foundation focused on global food concerns and
said his 29-year-old son recently traded in a career with the
U.S. Defense Department to become a Nebraska farmer.
"We have a real challenge in this country in getting the
next generation into agriculture," Buffett said. "Getting kids
to come back to the farm is really difficult but really
Universities around the country offer grant-funded
educational courses on fundamentals that include finding
farmland to buy, food safety, financing and agricultural
practices, as well as specific training on topics like "grazing
goats," "Chickens 101" and "Basic Beekeeping."
"It is not just a movement that is taking place in the
middle of the country. It is all over," said Debi Kelly, an
extension associate with the University of Missouri who helps
manage beginning farmer programs.
Pending bills in Congress would set up a micro-loan program
for new farmers for everything from vegetable farms to small
dairy farms. And backers of beginning farmers are also lobbying
to add to the 2012 farm bill language that would ease hurdles
for them to get crop insurance.
"Farming has become an incredibly sexy topic and occupation
for young people," said Ferd Hoefner, policy director
for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "I've never
seen anything like it in my experience."
One factor spurring these next-generation farmers is a
growing subculture that is highly critical of what conventional
agriculture has become. The documentary "Food Inc.," which
depicts the nation's food supply as controlled by a handful of
corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, was
a call to action for some.
They worry that unlabeled genetically modified foods are
harmful and fear that overuse of farming chemicals is damaging
the soil and the food grown in it. They are angry about the way
poultry, hogs and cattle are confined and dosed with antibiotics
It is too early to know if the new breed of farmer will have
a significant influence on reversing the trend toward fewer and
larger farms, or on the reliance on genetically modified seeds
and chemical applications for crops, or on the shopping and
eating habits of consumers.
But as the movement builds, conflicts already are festering
as the younger, urbanized approach challenges the tenets of
modern U.S. agriculture.
Just last month, a consortium of U.S. organic and small
family farmers took on global seed giant Monsanto Co (MON.N) in
a court hearing in New York. The growers want protection against
the seed giant if their organic seed becomes contaminated with
its patented biotech seed germplasm. A judge's ruling is due in
March on Monsanto's motion for dismissal.
There also are face-offs over costly farmland, chemical
applications and marketing strategies. Tension also is tied to
farm programs geared toward commodity subsidies that favor
large-scale production over small operations.
"I think there is much more conflict between these beginning
farmers and the agribusiness establishment and their captive
federal and state agencies, who see this trend as a threat to
business as usual in rural America," said John Peck, executive
director of the Family Farm Defenders group.
The influence of mainstream agriculture on their farming
operations is something that troubles the Pughs, who will be
planting their first spinach seed soon. They fear that chemicals
used at a neighboring corn farm could hamper their efforts to
be certified as organic producers. And they struggled so much to
find affordable organic grain to feed their chickens that they
"Farming and food is so basic. We all have to eat to live,"
said Laura Pugh. "It is scary to see what is going on."
Another troubling factor for new farmers is the skyrocketing
cost of farmland. Year-over-year appreciation rates top 10, 20
and 30 percent in some states. In Nebraska, prices rose by
almost 40 percent in 2011 over 2010, according to the Federal
Land values are rising as farmers are benefiting from
historically high prices for corn, wheat, soybeans and cattle,
amid strong export demand and a boom in biofuel demand.
But new farmers in many cases are struggling to find quality
land they can afford and if do buy, there is fear that a
reversal in crop prices could leave them over-leveraged.
"I've been telling people, be cautious. You should work
through the math," said David Baker, Iowa State University's
farm transition specialist for the Iowa Beginning Farmer
Program. "If corn were to drop by half, if soy dropped by half,
does it still work? Can you handle it without a lot of
The Pughs feel fortunate to have bought their land at $2,300
per acre from the family of a farmer who had died. Although the
tract had once been part of a large multi-generational family
farm, the heirs had dispersed around the country.
The Pughs say they still have much to learn. They take
classes and consult with advisors but hope soon to have a
thriving, multi-faceted business that serves local farmers'
markets in nearby Columbia, Missouri. They recognize they may
never match the salary Dan drew for selling medical equipment
but relish the chance to make a difference in the food they feed
their family and sell to others.
"My dad thinks we're crazy," Laura Pugh said. "But I'm