Scottsbluff Star-Herald. Jan. 14, 2015.
Agriculture: Nebraska is a good place for beginning farmers and ranchers
The average age of the American farmer in 2012 was more than 58 years old, according to the Census bureau.
As older farmers retire, the pace of recruiting new producers has been slow. Farm-raised kids often look elsewhere for careers. Retiring farmers sell out to neighbors. Farmland gets converted to urban uses, such as housing developments. The report showed the U.S. farm population had shrunk about 4 percent over the previous five years.
The news is a bit better in Nebraska, where statistics from the same report found the average number of farms was up 5 percent from 2007, although land in farms remained about the same at 45.3 million acres. The average age of Nebraska farmers was 56, while the number of operators younger than 34 was up 42 percent from 2007.
Beginning farmers face challenges finding access to land, startup capital and training and apprenticeships. Younger Nebraska farmers fare better than most. An agriculture website, hobbyfarms.com, ranks Nebraska second in the nation for beginning farmers. As its name suggests, the website focuses on small-scale production. But the data used to evaluate the states applies to row-crop farmers as well.
It cites the Nebraska Department of Agriculture's Beginning Farmer Tax Credit Program, enacted in 2013, which offers new farmers a three-year land lease and $500 tax credit reimbursement to start their farms. Landowners who lease their land to new farmers are also eligible for tax credits. The Nebraska Investment Finance Authority provides a Beginning Farmer/Rancher Program for purchase of agricultural land, equipment and machinery, or breeding livestock. Working with banks, private seller-lenders (through land contracts) or investors, the program facilitates below-market-rate loans of up to $500,000 to be used in agricultural production for beginning farmers and ranchers who have not already owned substantial farm land. The Nebraska Advantage Rural Development Act, administered by the Nebraska Department of Revenue, provides a 10 percent refundable tax credit, up to $30,000, against sales and use taxes or income tax liability for livestock producers who invest in at least $50,000 in modernization or expansion.
In addition, a variety of additional assistance is available, beginning with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It just announced the availability of more than $18 million in funding to help educate, mentor and enhance the next generation of farmers through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, administered by the National Institute for Food and Agriculture. It awards grants to organizations that offer matching-funds programs, such as workshops, educational teams, training, and technical assistance to train beginning farmers and ranchers.
The USDA Farm Services Agency makes direct and guaranteed farm ownership and operating loans to family-size farmers and ranchers who can't obtain commercial credit from a bank or other lender. FSA loans can be used to purchase land, livestock, equipment, feed, seed and supplies, and to construct buildings or make farm improvements.
Farm Credit Services is a network of independently-owned credit and financial institutions that serve farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses. It offers a Young and Beginning Program providing financial resources for producers 35 or younger or with less than 10 years of experience. Qualifying farmers and ranchers can receive agricultural loans for land purchases, operations, insurance and more, business education reimbursements, youth in agriculture loans and even college scholarships.
The Natural Resources Conservation Services offers free technical assistance for soil, water and wildlife conservation and management practices including irrigation and animal manure management. Beginning farmers and ranchers can receive financial assistance for conservation-related practices.
Non-government help is available through organizations such as the Center for Rural Affairs and the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society. CFRA provides general information or ag issues, estate planning for retiring farmers, and links to resources for financing. NSAS is a member-based, nonprofit, farmer-led organization dedicated to sustainable farming and foods. Some of their programs are aimed at farmers who want to grow alternative or organic crops, which are gaining a foothold in Nebraska. With 111 farmers markets and community-supported agriculture organizations across the state, Nebraska ranks in the top 20 states for access to farm-fresh foods.
Farmers markets offer direct-to-consumer marketing of fresh crops. There's one in nearly every larger town in the Panhandle. Community Supported Agriculture provides a way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer on a subscription basis. A farmer offers a certain number of "shares" to the public. Interested consumers purchase a share in return for a box of seasonal produce or other farm products each week throughout the farming season. While they're niche operations, they're becoming more popular with health-conscious consumers. They offer steady cash flow through the growing season and allow producers to get to know the people who eat the food they grow.
Despite the challenges to agriculture, the nation will always need food — and farmers. For young people who want to join the next generation of producers, Nebraska's one of the best places to get started.
Lincoln Journal Star. Jan. 17, 2015.
McPherson should resign
Add the Journal Star editorial board to the chorus of voices calling for Pat McPherson to resign from the state Board of Education.
Clear evidence shows that McPherson, who was elected in November, has hosted a blog that provided a forum where bigoted racial slurs were tolerated.
This shows he is unfit to provide leadership as a member of a board that sets educational policy for Nebraska public schools.
McPherson founded and co-edited a blog called "Objective Conservative." Controversy erupted when a recent post to the blog called President Barack Obama a "half-breed." Subsequent investigation showed that the same label was applied to the president in at least five posts dating back to 2011.
Although McPherson has denied writing the posts, they are written using the pronoun "we," which would lead readers to assume that the posts were filed by those running the blog. All posts now have been deleted from the blog except one from McPherson disavowing the earlier language.
Use of the terminology is something that one might expect from an overt racist, certainly not something one would expect to be countenanced in any form by a member of the state Board of Education.
McPherson should be ashamed to be associated in any fashion with repeated use of the racial slur. Like all Americans, McPherson has freedom of speech. So do all those calling for him to step down.
That list notably includes Gov. Pete Ricketts, who had donated $500 to McPherson's campaign. Ricketts said initially that although many Nebraskans disagree with the president, "he is deserving of the same civility and respect we give one another. There is no room for bigotry. I am deeply disappointed and unequivocally condemn these comments."
When previous posts using the same slur were found on the blog, Ricketts called for McPherson to resign, saying that McPherson should "tender his resignation and allow the board to get back to the work of improving achievement outcomes for all students."
Lillie Larsen of Lincoln, who is vice chair of the Board of Education, said the blog posts were "unacceptable," and indicated other board members are exploring its options with the board attorney.
The Nebraska State Education Association, representing 28,000 teachers and other employees, issued a release saying that the office had received numerous phone calls and emails urging the NSEA to call for McPherson's resignation. "This is not the person we want serving in a leadership position at any level, much less on the state Board of Education."
Also calling for McPherson to resign were the Lincoln and Omaha chapters of the NAACP, and the state Democratic Party. State Democratic Party Chairman Vice Powers was one of the first to link to the blog on his Facebook page. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor Patrick Jones helped create a Facebook page calling for McPherson's resignation.
McPherson has attempted to portray the backlash against his blog as partisan, but it clearly is coming from all responsible quarters. He can no longer be effective. He needs to resign.
The Grand Island Independent. Jan. 15, 2015.
Property tax reduction plans expanding debate
Tax proposals are starting to come fast and furious in the Nebraska Legislature, with everyone waiting to see what new Gov. Pete Ricketts will propose as he has said reducing property taxes is his top priority.
Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis fired one of the first proposals in an intriguing proposition. Davis proposes lowering the amount of ag land value that school districts can tax from 75 to 65 percent. The property tax levy lid would also be lowered.
In return, school districts would be allowed to levy a local income tax of 19.4 percent of a person's state income tax bill. A district could increase it up to 30 percent with a super-majority vote of its board or by a public vote.
His proposal would also increase state aid where schools would be guaranteed $500 per pupil regardless of whether the district receives equalization funds.
Davis' plan does address one issue that always nags property tax reduction plans. That is how do you replace the lost revenue for school districts? While everyone wants lower taxes, people also want children to get a good education. It's not fair to expect schools to get by on less and still meet the standards expected.
So give Davis credit for not dodging that issue.
"We have to open another door," Davis said. "This is true tax modernization."
However, any proposal to create a new tax is going to be hard to sell. And the fire has come at Davis' plan already.
"Nebraskans have made their voice clear during the Tax Modernization Committee's field hearings and most recently at the ballot box this past November: taxes are too high and state leaders must find a way to lessen the tax burden. Sen. Davis' proposed solution to create a new taxing authority by authorizing a local income tax is the absolute wrong direction for Nebraska and ignores the clear will of the people," said Matt Litt, Americans for Prosperity-Nebraska state director
"While we agree with Sen. Davis that the property tax burden is too high and we appreciate any legislator for proposing different ideas to address this problem, new taxes are the wrong course. We are especially concerned that this new local income tax with its provision of allowing local school districts to raise rates to 30 percent of state income tax liability will create a scenario where taxpayers are paying a greater net tax burden under this plan. Americans for Prosperity and our grassroots activists will vigorously fight this tax expansion scheme," Litt continued.
Those statements sum up what Davis' proposal is up against. It's hard to round up votes for a new tax.
There lies the dilemma: Property taxes can't be reduced significantly without making up that revenue for school districts and other local entities.
So the state has to come up with more money for state aid to education or for a property tax credit fund. Will those additional state funds come from higher taxes, new taxes or reductions elsewhere? If reductions, where do you cut the state budget?
The most palatable part of Davis' plan may be the $500 in state aid for each pupil regardless of the equalization formula. But again, where does the state get those funds?
The Legislature's debate on taxes should be rigorous. What will come out of it is hard to tell, but it's good to see some new ideas put out there that will add to the debate.
McCook Daily Gazette. Jan. 15, 2015.
Opening up of Cuba trade long overdue
The secret talks that led to a prisoner exchange and release of a U.S. government contractor imprisoned in Cuba for five years have led to further thawing of the last remnants of the Cold War.
Now, the Obama administration has announced that it was significantly loosening restrictions on American trade with, and investment in, Cuba.
It's another of Obama's executive orders, but many business interests that oppose his other actions may be more supportive of this action.
It will take a literal act of Congress to officially end the embargo, but Obama's action will allow Americans to use credit cards in Cuba, and for American companies to sell telephone, computer and Internet technologies there.
Most of us will still be prohibited from traveling there as tourists, but it will no longer take a special license to visit Cuba.
The U.S. is now "one step closer to replacing out-of-date policies that were not working and puts in place a policy that helps promote political and economic freedom for the Cuban people," Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.
There will also be no limits on how much money Americans spend in Cuba each day or what they spend it on, travel agents and airlines can fly to Cuba without a special license, insurance companies can provide coverage for people living in or visiting Cuba, businesses can open accounts in Cuban banks, Americans can make investments in some small businesses and agricultural operations, and companies can ship building materials and equipment there for private Cuban companies to renovate private buildings.
Cuba should become an important trading partner for Nebraska businesses and should be a major market for our grain, meat and other agricultural products.
Yes the argument can be made that the administration is "going soft" on totalitarian government only 90 miles from our shores, and many of us remember the days when we thought a nuclear attack might be launched from that island nation.
But the United States has no problem trading and sharing space exploration with Russia, contracting with communist China to build our most popular consumer products and traveling to and trading with Vietnam.
Normalization will do more to bring Cuba into the 21st century than drag the United States down.
It's a welcome change that's taken far too long.