To Help New Farmers, Some States Look at Forgiving Student Loans

Apr 12, 2016 by

By Jen Fifield –

The farm of Bryce Brewer’s dreams would produce strawberries during even the worst Wisconsin winters. The climate-controlled setup would use no chemicals, less water and one key element: fish waste.

Brewer, 23, learned in college about this unconventional, emerging agricultural method called aquaponics. Yet, with $35,000 in student loan debt, he said it will be a while before he can get the $100,000 he needs to start the farm.

While aspiring farmers like Brewer have always had a hard time getting loans and land, they now point to student loan debt as another obstacle to a career in agriculture. Hearing their struggles — and hoping to entice more young people into a graying industry — federal and state lawmakers want to help them pay down their debt.

The U.S. Congress is considering a bill that would add farmers to the list of occupations that qualify for a federal program that forgives student loans for public service workers, such as teachers and police officers. In the meantime, New York started a small student loan forgiveness program for farmers last year, and the Wisconsin Legislature is considering doing the same.

Proponents, such as the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), a national nonprofit, say the programs will encourage more young people to farm at a time the industry needs them. The American farmer is aging — the average age of a principal farm operator in 2012 was 58, compared to 51 in 1982. At the same time, the number of new farmers is decreasing. The number of farmers who had been operating their farm for less than five years fell 23 percent from 2007 to 2012, to 171,550.

Seeing the trends, the state lawmakers who introduced the loan-forgiveness measures, New York Republican state Sen. Patty Ritchie and Wisconsin Democratic state Rep. Mark Spreitzer, say states should be doing everything they can to attract new farmers, given agriculture’s importance to the economy. Farming and its related industries provided nearly one of every 10 jobs in the U.S. in 2014. And every dollar in farm exports in 2014 stimulated another $1.27 in business activity.

The proposals to aid beginning farmers come as concerns grow about the increasing cost of college and debt from student loans. Seven in 10 students who graduated from college in 2014 had student loan debt, with an average of $28,950 per borrower.

Yet some agricultural economists and state agricultural officials say what new farmers need more than student loan forgiveness are programs that make it easier to find and buy land and obtain credit, the two barriers beginning farmers most often face.

Farmers are “rugged individualists,” said Richard Ball, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture & Markets in New York. Although they do want the government to recognize the importance of the industry, they don’t want subsidies, he said. “Most farmers will say, ‘get the policy right, get the attitude right, and then let us do our job.’ ”

Planting the Seed

Farmers have a harder time making monthly student loan payments than other young workers, said Eric Hansen, policy analyst at NYFC. Many get paid once a year, at the end of the harvest season. And they have to spend money before they make it, which makes access to credit vital.

Also, most farmers don’t earn enough on the farm to make ends meet; the majority of farm households in 2014 made most of their money away from the farm.

Source: To Help New Farmers, Some States Look at Forgiving Student Loans

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.