The trend line has been heading in the same direction for decades in this country. The number of American farms is shrinking, farmers are getting older and fewer young people are seeking to make their living off the land.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been seeking to slow this decline by encouraging a new generation to take up farming and by helping them access a full range of USDA and governmental programs.
Lilia McFarland, the 29-year-old USDA employee coordinating this initiative, has been described as the linchpin of the department’s New and Beginning Farmer and Rancher efforts.
McFarland has worked with numerous government agencies, Congress and other stakeholders to help young farmers and ranchers obtain land and capital; foster new markets for their products; offer appropriate risk management tools; and increase outreach, education and technical support, according to colleagues.
“Lilia has coordinated all these efforts to bring the agencies within USDA together and have a unified message with our programs, policies and outreach,” said Krysta Harden, former deputy secretary of agriculture.
According to the most recent agricultural census in 2012, the average age of the U.S. farmer was 58.3, compared to an average age of 50.5 in 1982. In addition, there were 20 percent fewer beginning farmers in 2012 than there were just five years earlier.
Many individuals seeking to get into farming have found it difficult to access the broad and sometimes confusing constellation of USDA information and resources, but that’s changed thanks to McFarland and her team, said Val Dolcini, administrator of USDA’s Farm Service Agency.
“We now have a streamlined, thoughtful focus on how all these individual resources relate to one another,” Dolcini said, adding that McFarland’s work includes enhanced USDA customer service and a department-wide strategy to guide collaborative work.
For example, McFarland and the team at USDA have made it easier for new farmers to get help finding land and capital by facilitating property transfers from retiring farmers or issuing low-interest loans for land purchases and start-up costs.
USDA is often the lender of first opportunity for new and beginning farmers, and from 2009 to 2015, the department increased its direct loans to this group by 20 percent. McFarland said the USDA expects to increase that number by another 4 to 7 percent over the next two years, opening up “important new opportunities for farmers to start and grow businesses.”
New farmers also can receive special rates on crop insurance and get help planning for and responding to natural disasters, market downturns and other events beyond their control. There is technical assistance for young farmers interested in organic practices, and help available to expand market opportunities, including building an export business.
McFarland began the initiative two years ago by imagining what she would need if she were interested in becoming a farmer, and she tried to find information and services from the USDA that she would need to start her own farming business. She discovered it wasn’t easy. Resources were in many different parts of the department or other agencies, and there was no single source of information from USDA.
To break down those walls, McFarland employed prodigious people skills to get to know leaders in multiple parts of USDA. She helped them understand the problem and then work together to identify solutions using the collective resources of department and external stakeholders.
“For somebody as young as Lilia to be able to create a working group across all these boundaries is amazing,” said Chris Beyerhelm, associate administrator with the Farm Service Agency. “Lilia’s energy, collaborative skills, persistence and engaging personality helped her span these agencies.”
Her passion for agriculture comes naturally. McFarland, who hails from a small town in rural Texas, calls working in agriculture “a happy accident” that brings her closer to her roots.
Under McFarland’s leadership, the USDA team developed a transparent, technology-based strategy to recruit future farmers and created a website to connect aspiring farmers with programs and resources they need to get started, Dolcini said.
The website, called New Farmers, links to resources for farmers from across the federal government, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and the Small Business Administration. Since its full launch in October 2015, the website has been the USDA’s most accessed content-based site with more than half a million page views.
McFarland also strengthened outreach programs to various populations that might be interested in going into agriculture, including new college graduates, veterans, women and immigrants, said Harden, who described McFarland as “poised, committed and hardworking.”
Beyerhelm said McFarland’s work is “more than just a feel-good story” about helping new farmers. “This really has to do with repopulating rural America and getting young people in particular back into those communities,” he said.
McFarland shares that vision. “We want new farmers to have the opportunity to become old farmers,” she said.