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USDA study identifies characteristics of beginning farmers as well as needs

Several U.S. Department of Agriculture programs are designed to support the special needs of beginning farmers, including financial support in the form of loans and higher conservation payment rates.

In the interest of more effectively targeting such programs, basic information was needed regarding the numbers and characteristics of beginning farmers. In response, a report recently released by USDA's Economic Research Service will provide policymakers with some valuable insight into the characteristics and needs of beginning farmers.

For reporting purposes, USDA defines a "beginning farm" as a farm operated by someone who has not operated a farm for more than 10 years. The 10-year requirement also applies to all operators of the farm.

Some of the key summary findings of this report include the following:

Approximately a fifth of all U.S. farms have a principal operator who is a beginning farmer. However, the concentration of beginning farms varies across the United States, ranging from 4 percent in some counties to more than half of all farms in other counties.

Beginning farmers account for about 10 percent of the value of U.S. production, but their share of production varies significantly by agricultural commodity.

While most beginning farmers tend to be white, non-Hispanic, and male; they are more likely than established farmers to be female, non-white or Hispanic.

Beginning farmers are typically younger than established farmers, yet 32 percent were 55 years or older in 2007, compared with more than 63 percent of established farmers who were over 55 years old.

On the average, beginning farmers operate farms that are smaller than established farms -- 174 acres compared with 461 acres.

While household income levels are determined more by farm size than by whether farmers are beginning or established, on the average, beginning farmers and their households earn less income from their farm, but more off-farm income.

Beginning farmers are less likely than established farmers to rent farmland, but they are just as likely to own all the land they operate. However, they own smaller acreage and are more likely to carry debt on their land.

The most common way beginning farmers acquire land is to purchase it from a non-relative, rather than inherit it or receive it as a gift.

While USDA has intensified targeting of programs for beginning farmers, they are less likely to participate in government programs than established farmers -- at least for commodity payment and conservation assistance programs. However, since many beginning farmers may not produce agricultural commodities that qualify for government assistance, they may not meet the eligibility requirements of such programs.

The report also identified two primary obstacles that beginning farmers face -- high startup costs and a lack of available land for purchase or rent.

Despite these obstacles, entry rates in farming are not significantly different from entry rates for other industries.

Annual entry rates in farming ranged from 8 to 11 percent between 1978 and 1997, compared to 7.7 percent for manufacturing between 1963 and 1982.

USDA program encourages U.S. dairy exports

To illustrate its continued support for the U.S. dairy industry, which this last year has seen its international market share decline partly due to the reintroduction of direct export subsidies by the European Union, officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced the annual allocations for its Dairy Export Enhancement Program.

The program helps U.S. dairy exporters meet prevailing world prices and encourages the development of international export markets in areas where U.S. dairy products are not competitive due to subsidized dairy products from other countries.

The allocations, as allowed under the rules of the World Trade Organization, include 68,201 metric tons of nonfat dry milk; 21,097 metric tons of butterfat; 3,030 metric tons of various cheeses; and 34 metric tons of other dairy products.

Reauthorized by the 2008 farm bill, the Dairy Export Enhancement Program is administered by USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service.

Wes Nelson is executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County.