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Seeds of hope for family farms in U.S.

States, groups working to help enterprises survive and thrive

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FRESNO, Calif. — Juan Chavira plans to do something increasingly unfamiliar in the agricultural industry: He expects to pass on his 40-acre chicken ranch to his kids.

"And my children are definitely interested in passing on the farm to their children," said Chavira, who has three sons, a daughter and three grandchildren.

The 44-year-old rancher — together with groups dedicated to giving farmers an economic boost — is trying to buck a trend that has decimated the numbers of family farms across the nation.

According to a new study funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, family farms are being gobbled up by giant corporate agribusinesses, paved over by suburban development or are going bankrupt.

The study reveals that in the 10 years ending in 1997, the number of farm operators under age 35 has decreased by more than 46 percent nationwide and by more than 51 percent in California, which leads the nation in fruit, vegetable and dairy production.

The future of America's family farms is in jeopardy if younger generations continue to leave farming at the current "alarming rate," said Steve Schwartz, co-author of the report.

There are a handful of programs in place around the country to aid young farm owners. Some offer tax breaks to lenders who cater to young farmers while others offer financial planning and legal assistance.

"The decrease in the number of younger farmers has been a steady trend for many years," Schwartz said. "What's new is that there are groups working on the issue and public resources going into that work."

Eighteen states provide subsidized "aggie bonds," which allow lenders to receive federally tax-exempt interest on loans made to beginning farmers.

New York, Minnesota, Iowa and a few other states also have "farm transition centers" to help aspiring farmers find small, family-owned operations in danger of being folded into corporate farms or sold to developers.

Chavira immigrated from Chihuahua State in Mexico when he was 15 and has worked on the ranch he intends to buy. He said his purchase was in doubt before California FarmLink stepped in. About 10 percent of the purchase price of Chavira's new ranch in California's Central Valley is coming from a conservation easement.