RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he's seeing more young people and even returning disabled veterans expressing an interest in farming, and he's rolling out a program to help them realize their dreams.
Vilsack was scheduled to address the Virginia Farm Bureau on Wednesday to promote a micro-loan program that will provide borrowing of less than $35,000 with half the paperwork usually required to secure a loan. Commercial credit is often out of the reach of new farmers.
The idea, Vilsack said, is to open the door for smaller-scale growers and others interested in agriculture at a time when the American farmer is getting grayer and grayer.
"We see this as an entryway for innovation and entrepreneurship in rural America to complement production agriculture and to allow an easier way for young people to get into this business," Vilsack said in an interview Tuesday ahead of his Richmond visit.
"This is going to allow us to increase the number of people in farming, which is very important given the age of the average farmer in Virginia and the country -- close to 60 years of age," he said.
The micro-loan program is part of the U.S. Agriculture Department's efforts to expand farming opportunities to all. In the past three years, for example, the department has provided more than 100,000 loans to farmers totaling $14.6 billion. More than half of those loans went to beginning and what the USDA calls "socially disadvantaged" producers.
Vilsack described socially disadvantaged as African-American and Hispanic growers and ranchers, as well as disabled veterans.
"We have found there is a therapeutic impact, if you will, in connecting veterans with agricultural opportunities," he said.
The USDA loans can be used to purchase land, livestock, equipment, feed, seed and supplies. They also can also be used to make farm improvements, such as the construction of new farm buildings.
Vilsack said the micro-loan program is aimed a growing demographic.
"We've seen an increased interest of people in their late 20s and early 30s to reconnect with the land, to reconnect with rural life, to see if there's an opportunity for an entrepreneurial operation," he said. "This is recognition of that."
At the Farm Bureau, Vilsack will be speaking before an agricultural group that has been among the loudest critics of the Obama administration's efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Many have complained the effort, directed by the Environmental Protection Agency, has shifted too much of the clean-up costs on agriculture.
"This bottom line is this: I'm confident in farmers in the Chesapeake area responding to the need for good conservation," Vilsack said. "I know they are currently engaged in that and I know it's working."