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For new farmers, challenges remain


Zoe Bradbury with her Belgian team of horses on the farm in Langlois, Ore. (Valley Flora Farm)

The number of farms in America has begun to grow again, according to the most recent agricultural census. New small farms helped the overall number rise 4 percent between 2002 and 2007. But it still isn't easy to become a farmer.

That was the message at the Drake Forum, a two-day conference this week in Washington that focused on "policy innovations and opportunities" for new farmers. In panel after panel, beginning farmers and policy wonks talked about the obstacles new small farmers face: access to land, the credit crunch and the slow-moving bureaucracy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Take the story of Zoe Bradbury, who farms on about five acres in Langlois, Ore. Bradbury grew up on a farm and three years ago returned home to start Valley Flora Farm on land leased from her mother. Bradbury had saved $10,000. But she needed $10,000 more to install an irrigation system that would allow her to grow a range of fruits and vegetables to sell through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and at farmers markets.

Most banks turned her down. Not many, Bradbury said, offer agricultural loans any more because they are not easy to package and sell. The interest rates at the few regional banks that did offer loans were too high.

So Bradbury went to her local USDA office.The officers told Bradbury she wasn't eligible for their loans, either. The USDA will not provide money for "permanent improvements," such as an irrigation system, to a farmer who doesn't own the land. That she was leasing from her mother, from whom she would one day inherit the farm, didn't sway them. "From their point of view it was an insecure loan because I might be kicked off the land and unable to pay them back," she said.

Even if she had been eligible, she may not have received enough money. The USDA told Bradbury that her loan would be calculated based on the amount of money a farmer could earn selling crops at commodity prices, a wholesale price set by the state. But those prices are far lower than what Bradbury can charge consumers for her locally grown produce. The commodity price for asparagus, for example, was 20 cents a pound.

In the end, Bradbury had to charge the new equipment to an interest-free credit card and borrow money from her boyfriend. (They got married. She paid him back.)

"I haven't met someone yet who has been helped by current USDA programs," Bradbury said. "Most of the farmers I know sell in direct channels. None fit into an easy category for USDA programs."

Over the last year, the agency has made a lot of noise about being more open to small, non-commodity farmers. In September, the USDA launched a program called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food that aims to create economic opportunities for small farmers by connecting consumers with local producers. Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan has offered to help connect new farmers with USDA grants that can help them get off the ground and stay in business.

That kind of matchmaking might have helped Bradbury. Long after she had put down her own money, she found out she would have qualified for a grant from the USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The USDA is so huge with so many programs, said Bradbury, it's hard for even its own employees to direct young farmers to the ones that can help.

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  March 5, 2010; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics , Sustainable Food  | Tags: Jane Black, sustainable food  
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