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Ritchie introduces ‘Young Farmers NY’ proposal to grow agriculture industry

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A “Young Farmers NY” proposal announced Tuesday by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Patricia A. Ritchie includes a handful of initiatives to preserve the future of family farming.

Mrs. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and a coalition of Senate Republicans are seeking to include the package of bills in the budget to be approved by the state Legislature in April that would accomplish the following:

n Create tax-deductible “farm savings accounts” to help young people save money to purchase farms and to help farmers cover unexpected costs.

n Create loans, grants and tax credits for the sale or lease of land and equipment, along with technological innovations. A $5 million “young farmer revolving loan fund” would provide startup loans for land and equipment purchases, while a $1 million competitive grant program would make funding up to $50,000 available for projects that demonstrate the use of new technology or production innovation.

n Launch agricultural education efforts including an apprenticeship program, student loan forgiveness and increased funding for the in-school FFA program.

The proposal, which calls for a total state investment of more than $30 million, was inspired by feedback from young upstate New York farmers who have experienced hurdles operating family-owned farms, Mrs. Ritchie said. Statistics show the average age of New York farmers is 57 years, she said. And for every farmer under the age of 35, there are two farmers 65 or older.

“The real risk we face is a continuing decline in family farms if we don’t do more to preserve them by investing in the next generation of farmers,” she said.

Proposed farm savings accounts would enable farmers to set aside tax-deductible savings during profitable years and help provide financial stability for farmers, Mrs. Ritchie said.

That initiative, coupled with the launch of a revolving loan fund to help farmers buy equipment, should give young farmers more confidence to make investments, she said.

“Parts in this initiative address hurdles that I’ve heard directly from people that have kept them from taking over their family farm or purchase equipment,” Mrs. Ritchie said.

“The revolving loan fund will help people who cannot make investments because they don’t have collateral. That stops them right in their tracks,” she said.

The legislation also supports Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan to relax the threshold at which estate taxes for land purchases kick in, from $1 million to $5.25 million, Mrs. Ritchie said. New York state would lose about $7 million of the $1 billion it now collects in annual estate taxes for farmland purchases under the proposal.

Defending that tax cut, Mrs. Ritchie said that the state needs to make investments in the agriculture industry that will encourage young farmers to stay involved.

She said declining interest among young farmers to continue family operations is a problem that has to be tackled head-on.

“Most of the time farmers have to sell a portion of their property to pay the estate tax, so that’s been a hurdle for young farmers taking over family farms. If you look at that number separately, it might be a concern,” she said of the tax break. “But the success of farming as a whole will be dependent on some of these initiatives going forward. We’re going in the wrong direction right now, and we have to do something to turn the tide and make farming more affordable for young farmers.”

Joining legislators at Tuesday’s press conference in Albany to support the legislation were Orion and Jessica Behling, co-operators of Behling Orchards, a family-run apple farm based in the town of Mexico, Oswego County.

“When farming is in your family’s DNA, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else,” Mr. Behling said. “Farming is hard work at any age, but beginning farmers face particular challenges in starting their business, and the Senate’s plan takes away some of the uncertainty and helps us create a foundation for future success.”

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