Planting the Seed for More Millennial Farmers May Mean Forgiving Their Student Loans
By Annie Wood
This article first appeared on genprogress.org.
Today, 41 million Americans have some kind of student loan debt. The average amount of student loan debt is just under $30,000. Considering the cost of a tractor runs at least $25,000, it’s no wonder young Americans are reluctant to go into agriculture. Many who work in agriculture are drawing attention to the falling number of young people entering agriculture, and shedding light on how this is an issue that affects the entire country.
Agriculture is already a daunting field to break into—no pun intended. To get a start in agriculture, farmers need experience, land, and start-up funds for equipment and crops. Having nearly $30,000 in student loan debt means young people are starting off behind, and there’s reason for concern as the current generation of farmers gets ready to retire.
Lindsey Lusher Shute, co-founder and executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition said that large student loan payments can be obstacle preventing youth from getting into agriculture. “Farmers in their first few years working as interns or apprentices, or even starting out on their own as independent farmers, they’re making a pretty low income. To pay a student loan on top of that is very expensive and almost impossible.”
The National Young Farmers Coalition is pushing for farmers to be included under qualifying careers for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a federal student loan repayment plan that caps payments according to discretionary income. Under the PSLF repayment option, borrowers’ loan balance is forgiven after 120 payments and ten years of full-time employment in a job qualifying as public service.
Currently, jobs that are considered “public service” include those in government, education, nonprofits, and medical fields. The National Young Farmers Coalition has launched a campaign called “Farming is Public Service.” The campaign’s goal is to tell stories of young farmers’ financial challenges brought on by student loan debt, and to call on Congress to introduce legislation that would include farmers as a possible category for PSLF.
The president has identified the waning number of young farmers, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has also recognized the urgent problem: There are simply not enough young people going into agriculture currently to sustain the extremely important sector of the United States economy. Secretary Vilsack estimates that the United States needs about 100,000 new farmers in the next few years as the older generation gets ready to step back.
Lusher Shute says this number is really a bare minimum. “Between the last two ag censuses we only had about 3,000 more young people come into agriculture.”
New York State has taken a similar approach to PSLF for farmers, but the National Young Farmers Coalition says the program doesn’t go far enough, according to Lusher Shute: “With only 10 farmers awarded up to $10,000 per year, for a total of five years, the program is competitive.”
“There need to be national policies that are really incentivizing agriculture as a career,” Lusher Shute said. While helping ten farmers is good, but doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the problem at hand.
Annie Wood is a Student Debt Reporter at Generation Progress. Follow her on Twitter @anniewood28