There are many federal government programs offering financial and technical assistance to farmers, and many of these are available to encourage beginning farmers and sustainable practices. These federal government programs can help farmers address land access issues in a variety of ways. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), not surprisingly, is the main provider of financial and technical assistance to farmers.
The USDA Farm Services Agency (FSA) and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are the key agencies under the USDA that provide farmers with technical and financial assistance via farm programs. Financial resources available to farmers who meet a farm program’s eligibility requirements include loans, cost share to install conservation practices, and rental or other type of direct payments to protect natural resources on agricultural, farm, and forest land.
Photo Credit: Lois Miller
The Wahl family has been raising sheep and cattle in Oregon since 1874. Their 2,000-acre ranching operation includes timber-producing forests, ponds, riparian buffer vegetation, and wetland habitats. Conservation is a family tradition for the Wahls, who believe in protecting the resources of the ranching operation for future generations.
The Wahls have enrolled in various federal USDA conservation programs over the years, including the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. As the family continues sorting out how to pass the ranching operation to the fifth generation, conservation conversations will be a key part of the transition. Read more about the Wahl Ranch here.
Much of the assistance provided to farmers through USDA agencies is funded through the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is a large, complex piece of legislation addressing agriculture and a host of other areas, and is passed by Congress every four to five years. Each year, the Farm Bill provides hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to eligible farmers.
Although the programs funded may change from one Farm Bill to the next, the kinds of assistance – cost-share, loans, etc. – generally stay the same. Importantly, recent Farm Bills have recognized the unmet needs of new, beginning, and/or socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers and have targeted resources to those groups.
Farm Bill programs can be complicated to navigate. Fortunately, there are existing resources to help farmers and food producers understand and access these programs. For example, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is a well-known organization based in Washington, D.C., with longstanding expertise in helping farmers access farm programs. NSAC focuses on helping sustainable and diversified farm operations, and also provides information related to farm programs for beginning and minority farmers.
NSAC has developed a guide for farmers that explains key Farm Bill programs, called the Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs. In addition, NSAC also provides this helpful chart of food- and farm-related programs, which summarizes who is eligible to apply or sign up for each program.
Additional farm program explainer resources are listed at the bottom of this page.
Another way to get help with farm programs is to get to know the USDA staff at your local USDA Service Center. The Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff these Service Centers and help farmers, food producers, and rural businesses understand USDA farm programs, including eligibility, program requirements, and how to sign up or enroll in a program.
USDA provides a directory of local Service Centers by state and county. To access the directory, click here.
In determining whether to apply for enrollment in a USDA program, important considerations include 1) whether a program furthers your own farming goals and 2) whether you will be able to meet program requirements. For example, some programs require a producer to maintain conservation practices installed on farmland using federal funding for a specific period of years.
Additionally, farmers should keep in mind that the farm program application process takes time, energy, and patience. However, the resources available below and your local USDA office should be able to help you create a successful application and access resources to help your farm operation grow and thrive.
It’s not an attorney’s job to make decisions for farmers or to set farm transfer goals. Instead, attorneys can provide information about pros and cons of different options, advice about what is common versus unusual, fair versus unfair, etc. Attorneys can help farmers understand the universe of possible farm transfer goals and help narrow down individual options so that farmers can make final decisions.
The Center for Agriculture and Food Systems is an initiative of Vermont Law School, and this toolkit provides general legal information for educational purposes only. It is not meant to substitute, and should not be relied upon, for legal advice. Each farmer’s circumstances are unique, state laws vary, and the information contained herein is specific to the time of publication. Accordingly, for legal advice, please consult an attorney licensed in your state.