Louisiana Young Farmer Questions Agriculture Secretary Vilsack

Louisiana young farmer Bethany Butterfield of Grant parish participated in a town hall meeting with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during last week's American Farm Bureau Federation convention in Orlando, Florida.  Bethany and her husband Will operate Butterfield Farms near Pollock where they produce grass-fed beef, pastured poultry, horses, vegetables and border collies.

The Butterfields were attending the convention representing Louisiana in Farm Bureau's Excellence in Agriculture contest.  

The transcript of Bethany's question and Secretary Vilsack's answer is below.

BETHANY BUTTERFIELD, LOUISIANA FARM BUREAU MEMBER: Hi, my name is Bethany Butterfield. I'm a young farmer from Louisiana. 

We all know that there is a widening age gap in agriculture and that that is something that we should be concerned about and that we need to make more efforts to involve young people in agriculture. 

And so I wanted to ask you specifically about the Young Farmer Success Act. I'm not sure if you're aware of it, but it's basically an attempt to add -- to treat farming as public service and to add it as part of the student loan forgiveness program for people who are involved in agriculture for a number of years. And if you can't give me an update on that, or your department's opinion on that, I'd like to hear what your department's plans are for involving more young people in agriculture. 

USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: That's a great question, and you are, as they say, one of a million. There are roughly a million women in agriculture today, and we want to see, and will likely see, an increased number of women in agriculture, and it is one of the strategies that we're focused on in trying to deal with the very issue that you've addressed. 

I don't know why she was looking at you, Bob, when she was talking about that age gap, but she wasn't looking at me. 

AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: I'm just the victim here. 

USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: But it is true. The average age of the farmer is creeping up. It's now -- average is 58. And depending upon what part of the country you're from, it could be significantly higher than that. It's something we take very seriously. 

The act that you referred to, the department doesn't have a position on it, but I'll tell you my personal view about it. It makes sense to me. I don't know how we could craft it in a way that provided help and assistance, but at the end of the day, we have to have multiple strategies for helping young people deal with the rising cost of college. 

Because, frankly, my wife was looking at some papers from her dad who passed away a couple years ago, and she pulled out the bill for her college; one semester, 1,800 bucks. I mean, you couldn't -- shoot, you couldn't get a week of college for that now. I mean, it's just amazingly expensive, so we have got to have strategies to be able to make sure that kids don't get prevented from pursuing education. And we want to make sure that they take advantage of agricultural opportunities, because there are a growing number of business and job and opportunities on the farm. So it sounds like a good idea, and we ought to be looking at that, along with a number of other things. 

I want you to take a look at our website. We just launched a month or so ago our Beginning Farmer and Rancher website. We retooled it. And now, basically, what you can do is you can go online and you can basically say, I want to be a farmer in this part of the country, I want to farm and grow this commodity or this specialty crop, and I want to do it on so many acres. You plug all that information in, and then we will provide you with a personalized plan of how USDA can provide help and assistance. 

It might be a microloan. It may be a farmer ownership or operating loan. It may be something with NRCS and the conservation benefits that are now being made available to younger farmers and beginning farmers where they don't have to come up with a cost share quite as quickly as a more mature operation.It may be the benefits of crop insurance where we're providing a little extra boost for younger farmers so that the premiums aren't quite as steep. There are a series of things that you as a beginning farmer could access from that web page. 

And we are also working very closely with returning veterans. We've had over a million of these young people returning from places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of them came from rural areas. There is a nurturing aspect of farming, which we think is quite healthy. Especially if you've been confronted with the horrors of war, farming could potentially be rehabilitative, and so we're encouraging and working with a number of groups that are trying to connect veterans to these programs at USDA. 

I would say, and I always say in response to a question like this, that there are some things that the government generally could do in addition to the student loan program you announced. You know, frankly, there's not an incentive in the income tax structure and system for those who are absentee owners of land -- those who aren't actually farmers, but own farm land -- to essentially consider selling it or making it available to beginning farmers. 

You know, if your farm appreciates in value, if you were to sell it while you're alive, you get hit with a tax. If you die owning it, you get a stepped-up basis. There ought to be something we can do on the income tax side. 

And one thing we've begun to do at USDA is when we modify or close a delinquent -- an older lab that's no longer in service -- we did this recently at Florida A&M. It was about 3,000 acres that was associated with that ARS facility, and by law we have to provide it, opportunity for the university to have access to that land. We're now putting a condition on the access to land. You can have it, you don't have to pay for it, but you do have to use it in a way that advances the cause of beginning farmers. So our hope is that Florida A&M will use this in a way to make land available. 

The other thing we could look at, our military installations that are surrounded by farmland. Instead of always getting the highest and best rent for that land, maybe they could look at ways in which they could incent beginning farmers at a discounted rate, because at the end of the day, it would be beneficial to the country at large. 

Lots of things going on in that space.