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Open Forum: Invest in the next generation of farmers
By Rebecca King
As a fledgling 30-something female sheep farmer, I rack up more than my share of Little Bo Peep jokes. In reality, I haven't lost my sheep.I know exactly where to find them because they're the key to my successful cheese-making start-up enterprise and my farm outside Watsonville.
But the success of my venture -- and those of thousands of beginning farmers across the country -- relies on support from federal Farm Bill programs that Congress needs to prioritize in the upcoming fiscal year 2011 budget recommendations, efforts like the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account Program.
The program is based on "Individual Development Accounts," a competitive savings plan that matches funds saved by individual farmers. California FarmLink independently administers an individual development account program in which farmers like me commit to saving a set amount every month for two years. This program matched my contribution 3 to 1: every $100 I saved each month equaled $300 in my account. The money saved can be used after two years toward specific business investments, such as a farm down payment or to purchase farm equipment.
To further ensure long-term business success, as a program participant I was required to complete financial training programs such as business planning and market development as well as develop a savings and business plan before the funds could be used. At the end of two years I received back almost $10,000 in capital as well as a strong foundation for my business fiscal success.
I'm not alone. Participants in IDA programs designed to start up small enterprises across various business categories are 84 percent more likely to become profitable business owners than those who have not participated. Funding such entrepreneurial programs means the cost of other line items, like unemployment benefits, goes down as well.
The Farm Bill created the first ever IDA program specifically for farmers, called the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account Program. Unfortunately, Congress did not appropriate funds for the program in last year's budget. We can start fresh right now for the 2011 fiscal year.
Our nation looks to California for its vision on how best to cultivate healthy, sustainable farms to feed future generations. Our California delegation, particularly with the leadership of Sen. Barbara Box (D) and Representative Sam Farr, D-Carmel, stand in a strong position to recommend $5 million in beginning farmer funding. If funded at this level for the remaining four years of this farm bill, this program could still assist approximately 3,200 new farmers like me to establish farming livelihoods across the country.
Yes, we live in a time of extreme budgetary pressures. But no, we can't short-change the future of our children or the sustainability of our food system. It's a matter of reinvesting in the long-term viability of vibrant agricultural enterprises and farms that feed our nation.
Congress: Invest in and grow the next generation of farmers like me and you won't be lost like Bo Peep. Instead we'll be eating cheese, meat and other locally raised, healthy food made with pride by America's farmers.
Rebecca King is a dairy sheep farmer and cheese-maker in northern Monterey County. She sells raw milk sheep cheese through farmers markets, specialty shops and restaurants.
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