SANTE FE, N.M. — New and expanded efforts to connect small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers to U.S. Department of Agriculture resources were announced at the National Farmers Union convention.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in the convention’s keynote address that these efforts can help small and mid-sized farmers build stronger businesses, expand to reach new and larger markets and grow their operations.

Efforts include improved access to USDA resources, revised risk management tools that better fit the needs of smaller producers, additional support for hoop houses and expanded collection of valuable market news information.

USDA also is introducing a series of education tools focusing on opportunities for farmers engaged in local and regional food systems. In addition, USDA field staff will be boosting their outreach efforts to small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers.

The new efforts announced by the Vilsack include:

Access To Capital

* Changes to the Farm Storage and Facility Loan program were made to help small and mid-sized fruit and vegetable producers access the program for cold storage and related equipment such as wash and pack stations. Diversified and smaller fruit and vegetable producers, including Community Supported Agriculture programs, now are eligible for a waiver from the requirement that they carry crop insurance or Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program coverage when they apply for a FSFL loan. FSFL also can be used to finance hay barns and grain bins.

* Funding is available for producers under the popular microloan program. USDA launched the microloan program to allow beginning, small and mid-sized farmers to access up to $35,000 in loans using a simplified application process. Since its debut in 2013, USDA has issued more than 4,900 microloans totaling $97 million.

* Funding is offered for hoop houses to extend the growing season. Hoop houses provide revenue opportunities while also promoting conservation for small and mid-sized farmers. The hoop house cost-share program began as a pilot in 2010. Since then, more than 10,000 hoop houses have been contracted. USDA will soon announce an additional $15 million for hoop house development in persistent poverty counties in 19 states as part of USDA’s StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative.

Risk Management

* USDA is developing a whole-farm insurance policy that will better meet the needs of highly diversified producers, particularly small and mid-sized fruit and vegetable growers. Using new tools provided by the farm bill, USDA is working to reduce crop insurance costs for beginning farmers and ranchers. Organic producers will benefit from the elimination of a previously required 5 percent surcharge on crop insurance premiums.

Locating Market Opportunities

* USDA’s Farm to School program has put seven new coordinators on the ground in regional offices to help build direct relationships between small and mid-sized producers and school districts. One priority area for Farm to School is creating more opportunities for small and mid-sized livestock and poultry producers. Since 2013, USDA has invested nearly $10 million in program grants that support schools as they purchase from local and regional sources. In the 2011-2012 school year alone, schools spent nearly $355 million on local and regional food purchases.

* USDA is expanding price, volume, supply and demand information through Market News. Market News now is collecting price data on grass-fed beef to arm producers will real pricing information from the sector. Market News also soon will begin collecting data about local food prices and volume, valuable to small and mid-sized producers engaged in that marketplace. Market News provides real-time price, volume, supply and demand information for producers to use in making production and marketing decisions. Access to timely, unbiased market information levels the playing field for all producers participating in the marketplace.

* The National Farmers Market Directory was broadened to include CSAs, on-farm stores and food hubs. This information will help small and mid-sized producers find new market opportunities. USDA will begin collecting data to update the directory for the 2014 season this spring. The USDA National Farmers Market Directory receives more than two million hits annually.

Food Safety

* Pilot projects were launched in five states to help small and mid-sized farmers achieve Good Agricultural Practice certification. GAP certification indicates farmers have met food safety standards required by many retail buyers. Under these pilot programs, small and mid-sized producers will be able to share the costs and fees associated with the certification process as a group.

Group GAP efforts are being developed in partnership with small and mid-sized producer groups in Michigan, Wisconsin, Montana, Pennsylvania and Missouri.

Educational Resources And Outreach

* A Learning Guide Series was created for small and mid-sized producers to help them navigate available USDA resources, available on the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” website. The first in this series will be for small and mid-sized livestock and poultry producers. Additional guides will be released later this year. USDA field staff and StrikeForce teams will increase outreach to small and mid-sized producers using the learning guides.

* USDA launched “Small Scale Solutions for Your Farm,” a series of educational resources designed for both small livestock and fruit and vegetable producers. This includes tips on simple management activities such as planting cover crops to complex structural practices such as animal waste management systems or innovative irrigation devices

2014 Farm Bill

The recently-signed farm bill provides USDA with more direct resources to support small and mid-sized farmers, including:

* Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which provide grants to organizations that train, educate and provide outreach and technical assistance to new and beginning farmers on production, marketing, business management, legal strategies and other topics critical to running a successful operation. The farm bill provides $100 million total to the program over the next five years.

* Value-Added Producer Grant Program was modified to allow USDA to better target small and mid-sized family farms, beginning and socially-disadvantaged farmers and veterans. The 2014 farm bill provides $63 million over the next five years.

* Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program is expanded to support both direct-to-consumer opportunities and other supply chain projects such as food hubs. The bill provides $30 million annually.

USDA Budget Proposal

The USDA recently released its fiscal year 2015 budget, which includes additional resources to help small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers, including:

* $2.5 million to provide food safety training to owners and operators of small farms, small food processors and small fruit and vegetable vendors affected by Food Safety Modernization Act.

* $3 million for Small, Socially Disadvantaged Producers Grants Program to ensure historically underprivileged rural Americans have opportunities for cooperative development.

* $2.5 million for a new Food and Agriculture Resilience Program for Military Veterans that promotes research, education and extension activity for veterans.

* $11 million for the Value-Added Producer Grants Program that provides an additional $63 million in mandatory funding that is available until expended.

* $2.5 million in funding for the National Agricultural Statistics Service to conduct a survey on land ownership and farm financial characteristics that supports an administration priority that will provide additional demographic data related to small and beginning farmers and ranchers.

* $1.2 million for the Office of Advocacy and Outreach to carry out these responsibilities and the provisions of the 2014 farm bill related to outreach to beginning, small and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, including veterans, and rural communities.