Every August, Idahoans attend or participate in county, regional and state fairs. In some ways, the fair has come a long way from its ancient beginnings—Romans held fairs to encourage trade with conquered provinces, and medieval European fairs were held in conjunction with religious festivals. Fairs were eventually replaced by markets, but the purpose of a fair—showcasing goods, livestock and crafts—remains alive and well in communities nationwide today, thousands of years beyond the heyday of the Roman Empire.
Fairs tend to focus on youth; in Idaho, thousands of young people participate through 4-H and The National FFA Organization (FFA). For over a century, 4-H has been promoting excellence, responsibility and pride in young people. Many Idahoans have participated in 4-H’s wide range of programs, from livestock and horsemanship to gardening, photography, cooking and sewing. Similarly, FFA promotes excellence and commitment to the ideals of agriculture, educating youth about agriculture in the United States and the world. For decades, the fair has been an FFA milestone for its members, giving them an opportunity to showcase what they’ve learned while earning confidence-building accolades.
Youth participation in 4-H or FFA can lead to the next step in an agriculture career, that of beginning farmer or rancher. Although the rural landscape is changing, it’s good public policy to keep the family farm viable. In addition to growing food, generational family farms foster a strong work ethic, community commitment and a love for and stewardship of our natural resources.
Arguably, it’s never been easy starting out as a farmer or rancher, but it’s even more difficult today. Agriculture isn’t for the faint-hearted. Rewards come only after early morning hours and long days and fortunes can be made or destroyed with the weather. The number of family farms passed from generation to generation is dwindling, in part due to the death tax and uncertainty surrounding the 2001 and 2003 tax relief—young people are hesitant to risk the possibility of financial catastrophe. However, America needs young farmers and ranchers. In 2002, one-quarter of U.S. farmers and half of farm landlords were 65 years or older and, together, held one-third of farm assets. To compare: less than five percent of the U.S. labor force falls into this age category.
The good news is Congress has recently taken steps to assist beginning farmers and ranchers.
In the 2008 Farm Bill, beginning farmer and rancher development programs include training, educational outreach and technical initiatives that support a transition to organic farming and encourage energy efficiency. Still, without the money for capital investment in land, equipment and supplies, those who want to make a career out of agriculture cannot get started. Improvements to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Down Payment Loan Program provide low-interest, reduced-down payment, longer-duration loans to help beginning farmers and ranchers. The bill also provides financial incentives for retiring farmers to sell or lease to beginning farmers or ranchers under the Conservation Reserve Program. High startup and input costs create challenges for new farmers to invest in conservation. Recognizing this, the new farm bill increases conservation program cost-share—up to 90 percent for new farmers and ranchers. Funds have also been set aside for those beginning an agriculture career in programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program.
The rich tradition of the fair creates lifelong memories. It’s also a milestone for young people who are exploring a career in farming or ranching. And, while the way ahead has challenges, it holds great rewards—just ask a farmer or rancher at your fair this year.
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