A California farm group focused on developing young farmers is lobbying Congress to support the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program included in the Senate farm bill.

“The future of U.S. agriculture depends on the ability of new family farmers and ranchers to enter agriculture,” said Steve Schwartz, executive director of California FarmLink. “Yet there are twice as many farmers over 65 as under 35 years old.”

Aside from farm credit programs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is thin on programs targeting beginning farmers and ranchers, Schwartz pointed out.

California FarmLink, a nonprofit group based in Sebastopol, Calif., attracted dozens of San Joaquin Valley hopefuls to a recent workshop for young farmers in Modesto.

The Senate's farmer development program would fund education, outreach and technical assistance programs aimed at new farming opportunities. Its proposed budget is $15 million a year and funds would be issued on a competitive grant basis.

“Traditional methods of farm entry and farm succession are no longer adequate,” Schwartz said. “We need to support innovations, which is precisely what the Senate proposal would do.”

The House of Representatives is negotiating with the Senate to produce a Farm Bill, which is why FarmLink is lobbying three California congressmen taking part in the talks — Gary Condit, D-Ceres; Cal Dooley, D-Hanford; and Richard Pombo, R-Tracy.

“Beginning farmers are hungry for tools (to) help them start or expand operations,” Schwartz said. “This program delivers at a price that is only a drop in the bucket of farm bill funding.”

The development program would include mentoring, apprenticeship and internship programs; “farm link” assistance to pair retiring and new farmers; financial management; whole farm planning and other tools.

It's aimed at local, state and regional partnerships, including Cooperative Extension, community-based, non-governmental organizations, ag-related government agencies; and colleges.

Some of the funding would be earmarked for limited resource and minority farmers and farmworkers seeking their own farms.

For more information on California FarmLink, visit www.californiafarmlink.org.

Modesto Bee