BOISE -- The Idaho State Department of Agriculture proposed a new program aimed at helping Idaho farmers keep their farms in the family during the department’s legislative budget hearing last week.

Last Wednesday, Jan. 15, Celia Gould, ISDA director, told Joint Financial Appropriations Committee members the Farm Forward program will work to assist emerging farmers and support existing farmers with the goal of making it easier to stay on the farm.

With more and more young people choosing to leave family farms instead of staying on to take over from aging parents, Gould said the future of these farms is a rising concern throughout Idaho agriculture. The industry is aging – the average Idaho farmer is almost 57 years old, Gould said, and there’s no guarantee of young farmers to replace them.

“A well-known Idaho farmer told me a story about passing on his farm to the next generation,” Gould, an Owyhee County native, told the committee. “He asked his son if he wanted to take over the family farm. His son said no—farming is too hard. And then he went on to become a U.S. Marine instead.”

Gould requested funding from the committee to create a position for a full-time program manager, who once hired will serve as a liaison between farmers, industry and government to connect farmers with information and funding they need to stay in the business.

Chanel Tewalt, chief communications officer for ISDA, said the department hopes to provide farmers with walk-in services through the program to make access to resources quick and simple. Eventually, they aim to facilitate an annual conference for educators, farmers and industry members.

The program manager will operate out of ISDA’s Twin Falls office, but Tewalt said program services will be accessible from anywhere in the state.

“We wanted someone out there in Twin (Falls), in the heart of farm country,” Tewalt said. “They shouldn’t have to be in Boise just because the main office is here.”

Tewalt also said the Farm Forward program will focus on disabled farmers and farmers with military service. Idaho farmers who served in the military are a full decade older on average than their non-veteran counterparts, so encouraging young farmers to take their places is an even more pressing matter.

People from rural America account for 45 percent of all armed service members and often grew up on family farms, Tewalt said, citing a USDA statistic from 2010.

“So, they come home, and they have this huge amount of experience, but I don’t know if we’re doing the best job of helping them get back to these rural areas and start working again,” Tewalt said.

Once established, the program will help farmers take advantage of federal funds aimed at getting returning veterans into the agricultural industry. Multiple grant opportunities already exist to help returning veterans get into farming, but Tewalt said Idaho currently has no one able to assist farmers in getting those funds.

The program has been in development for a long time, Tewalt said, and the department expects to hit the ground running once the legislature approves its funding request. Currently, she said they are working on first steps such as building a website with resources for farmers in the interim.

An advisory board has been assembled to help guide the program and “flesh out ideas,” Tewalt said. The department sought out members of the banking and agribusiness industries as well as legislators and University of Idaho faculty to serve as a sounding board while the project gets underway.

“We’ve heard very, very positive feedback so far,” Tewalt said. “We’ve had this mission on our minds a long time, and everything is now knitting together very well.”

Sen. Bert Brackett (R-Rogerson, Dist. 23), one of the program’s key legislative supporters according to Tewalt, said he’s optimistic about Farm Forward’s ability to help family farms with the logistics of passing an operation to the next generation.

A fourth-generation rancher himself, Brackett said he understands the complexities of family dynamics and financial worries when deciding a farm’s future. Transitioning with concerns like debt in mind can be hard on a family, he said, but the appeal of passing a farm to the next generation remains in rural, remote areas like Owyhee County.

Brackett said he hopes Farm Forward will be able to provide a form of “counseling,” offering outside guidance to families planning their next steps.

“The worst thing that can happen to a family… is putting off tough decisions like these until it’s too late,” Brackett said. “Professional help of some kind is often needed. Every farm, every family dynamic is different. There’s no one size fits all.”

Though allocating new funds in the face of a tight budget is an obvious challenge, Brackett said he feels good about the program’s support among legislators. Governor Brad Little endorsed the program as part of ISDA’s proposed budget, which Brackett thought would make its success “highly more likely.”

Beyond one-time funding requested to create the management position, the program will utilize existing ISDA funds, which Tewalt said would hopefully ease concerns over further spending.

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