Opinion | Mike Bost: Don't forget our farmers
When the national media talks about entrepreneurship, the same industries seem to come up again and again. The tech startup, the consulting firm, the real-estate company, the new restaurant chain — and the list goes on.
But one group of entrepreneurs is rarely talked about, despite their vital importance to the American economy. We can’t forget about our farmers.
We are a nation planted by farmers. Benjamin Franklin called farming the only honest way to acquire wealth. Thomas Jefferson said our government would remain virtuous as long as it remained chiefly agricultural. Abraham Lincoln was born into farming and described agriculture as a great calling.
In Southern Illinois, farmers, ranchers and agricultural producers who are trying to get off their feet tell me their cost of doing business is climbing and their income is shrinking. They tell me they have very little to reinvest in their businesses and their employees, and they are struggling to stay afloat.
Farming and ranching operations are getting financially squeezed because of low commodity prices and the need for increased credit in order to expand or diversify. Small, family-owned businesses are being most affected. Despite the common misconception that most farms are large corporate enterprises, the fact remains that 97 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the U.S. are family-owned operations. Even more importantly, 88 percent of all farms are small family farms with less than $350,000 in gross cash farm income.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency plays an important part in helping to finance expansion or diversification with its Direct and Guaranteed Loan Program. While both FSA loan programs are heavily utilized, they have not kept pace with the cost of starting and diversifying an agricultural business. For example, in Illinois the maximum amount to borrow under the Guaranteed Loan Program is not large enough to cover the cost of a 100 acre parcel of highly productive farm ground or even a hog barn with the latest technology in animal husbandry and bio-security.
After hearing from lenders and entrepreneurial agricultural producers in Southern Illinois, I authored bipartisan legislation, the Beginning Agriculturist Lifetime Employment (BALE) Act, to modernize the Guaranteed and Direct Program at USDA. These reforms will better reflect the current costs of owning, operating, expanding, or diversifying an agricultural operation to make it sustainable for America’s next generation of producers.
According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, the average age of producers in the United States is 58.3 years. That may seem high, but a 2015 USA Today report indicated that the average age of a producer in Japan, by comparison, is 66 years old. The United States is heading in that direction if we do not incentivize and make available the tools necessary for the next generation to stay on the farm.
For our nation to thrive, we need our farms to thrive. The BALE Act gives agricultural entrepreneurs in Southern Illinois and throughout the United States the ability to do just that.