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Young, aging and veteran farmers struggle in Idaho agriculture. This program could help

Idaho Statesman - 1/28/2020

Jan. 28--During her budget presentation to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the director of the Idaho's agriculture department told lawmakers the story of a local farmer and his son.

The farmer wanted his son to take over the family farm, state ag director Celia Gould told lawmakers. The son declined, saying it was too much hard work. He opted to join the Marines instead.

After the son returned home from his service with the Marines, the father again asked him to take over the family farm.

"No," Gould said the son replied once again. "It's too much risk."

Farming is an undoubtedly risky business. But state agriculture officials say there is help out there for people who need it -- through loans for new farmers, classes to learn new farming methods and lawyers who can help families plan farm succession agreements. The problem is that none of those resources are always easy to find, or even in the same place.

The Idaho State Department of Agriculture and Idaho Gov. Brad Little are proposing a new program called "Farm Forward" that would aggregate resources scattered throughout programs across the state.

The ag department is asking Idaho's powerful budget committee to allow it to allocate $95,000 in funds already within the department's budget to fund the program, which is meant to assist young and emerging farmers, veterans, disabled farmers and families who need help passing on the farm to the next generation. A program manager would be based at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls.

"We are so proud of our ag industry," said Chanel Tewalt, the spokeswoman for the ag department. "It is the foundation of our economy in this state, but it also deserves our attention. We can't take that for granted."

Magic valley location to pull statewide resources

Ag officials said helping aspiring farmers who face significant barriers to entering the industry, as well as ensuring the success of long-established family farms, is necessary to make sure Idaho's agricultural economy remains just as strong in the future. Officials relied on a task force of agricultural professionals to form across the state to identify Idaho-specific needs.

"It is not reactionary; it's service and it's proactive," said Robin Kelley Rausch, the co-owner of Kelley's Canyon Orchard in Filer and one of the industry leaders who helped the state develop the program. "It is not regulatory, it is not selling anything like Idaho Preferred (a state program that markets Idaho food products). It is truly fostering agriculture, introducing people to agricultural business, and keeping our families in the agriculture business."

Having the program headquarters in the Magic Valley would provide easy access to not just a significant portion of Idaho's farmland, but also the hub of Idaho's dairy industry.

Some of the largest farms in the state are based in Cassia, Gooding, Twin Falls, Jerome and Minidoka counties. Ashlee Westerhold, a University of Idaho ag economist based in Twin Falls, said most of Idaho's farm cash receipts (gross farm income) come out of the Magic Valley every year. Despite this, there's not a lot of resources centered there or people just don't know they exist.

"Where is the communication breaking down between the extensions, ISDA, ag lenders and commodity groups?" Westerhold said. "How can we all come together to make sure these farmer and rancher groups have ample opportunities and educational resources to be successful in the future?"

One of the classes Westerhold runs and wants to further implement statewide focuses on farm succession planning and management. Some family-owned businesses can't always afford extended time with lawyers who charge $300-$600 an hour, Westerhold said, and those upfront costs can prohibit farmers and ranchers from adequately planning for big financial changes. Farm Forward could direct more family farm owners to classes like Westerhold's, or give them a spot they can call for initial, free advice.

"I know ISDA has been flooded with questions and trying to be that source," Westerhold said. "We are saying we want to build a farm business network and an information sharing system ... Holding it in this central location in southern Idaho and Twin Falls is a huge benefit."

Planning for the next generations of Idaho farmers

Making sure farming and ranching in Idaho is a feasible and profitable industry for the next generation is one of the primary concerns of the Farm Forward program. The average age of an Idaho farmer is 56, while the average age of an Idaho farmer with military service is 66. Nationwide, only 40% of family-owned business pass to the a second generation, while only one in 10 make it to third generation.

Rausch, who is the fourth generation to operate Kelley's Canyon Orchards in Filer, is bringing her family's experience and struggles to maintain the family farm to the program.

"My involvement is for very personal reasons," Rausch said. "It is focused on propelling all shapes of family businesses, giving women in agriculture another forum to collaborate in and to honor my dad's peers who are still working in agriculture into their 70s and may or may not have good planning in place for their businesses to thrive."

Stephen Parrott from Northwest Farm Credit Services said many people's instant reaction is to discourage young people like those in FFA from considering farming because of the capital it can take to get started. Parrott said that's especially with the rising cost of land in places like the Treasure Valley. But it can be attainable, especially if people know they can get help from places like the Farm Service Agency's loans for young farmers and ranchers or the Idaho Farm Bureau, he said.

Parrott, who is also the board chairman of the Idaho FFA Foundation, said FFA students also find plenty of opportunities and promising careers with the innovative agribusinesses based in Idaho, like Simplot, AgriService and Valley Wide Co-Op. Parrott said he hoped Farm Forward would do a better job spreading awareness of how feasible agricultural careers still are in Idaho.

"We've got a lot of great rural areas in the state that we need another generation to come back and take over the farm that's already out there," Parrott said.

The Legislature's budget committee will not begin approving agency budgets until the end of February. If the committee approves the program, funds will be available in July and Farm Forward could launch by the end of the 2020.


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