To address the critical shortfall of skilled young and beginning farmers and ranchers, House members have introduced the Young Farmer Success Act to incentivize careers in agriculture by adding farmers and ranchers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, an existing program that currently includes teachers, nurses, first responders and other public service professions. Under the program, eligible public service professionals who make 10 years of income-driven student loan payments can have the balance of their loans forgiven.
The House bill is a partisan effort introduced by Reps. Joe Courtney (D., Conn.), Glenn "GT" Thompson (R., Pa.), Josh Harder (D., Cal.), Antonio Delgado (D., N.Y.) and Lee Zeldin (R., N.Y.) to preserve America’s agricultural economy and the security of its national food supply by adding full-time farmers and ranchers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
In 2011, the National Young Farmers Coalition conducted a survey of 1,000 young farmers and found that 78% of respondents struggled with a lack of capital. A 2014 follow-up survey of 700 young farmers with student loan debt found that the average burden of student loans was $35,000 and that 53% of respondents are currently farming but have a hard time making their student loan payments, while another 30% are interested in farming but haven’t pursued it as a career because their salary as a farmer wouldn’t be enough to cover their student loan payments.
“Eighty-one percent of the young farmers who responded to our 2017 national survey hold a bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree. This means there is a very small population of beginning farmers without student loan debt. With the average age of farmers now nearing 60 years and farmers over 65 outnumbering those under 35 by 6:1, we need to do more for the next generation of farmers to succeed,” Young Farmers Interim executive director Martín Lemos said.
Farming is an expensive business to enter, in part because of skyrocketing land prices, and young and beginning farmers often see small profits or even losses in their first years of business. With the majority of existing farmers nearing retirement age and very few young people entering the farming or ranching profession, America is beginning to face an agricultural crisis. Since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the federal government has taken steps to support farmers, and the Young Farmer Success Act supports farmers through a different approach: to find a tangible pathway to paying off student loans that will incentivize a new generation of career farmers.
“America needs a new generation of farmers, now more than ever,” Courtney said. “The number of new farmers entering the field of agriculture has dropped by 20%, while the average farmer age has now risen above 58 years old. The skyrocketing cost of higher education and the growing burden of student loan debt are presenting major obstacles for young farmers. The burden of student loan debt can thwart their ability to purchase the farming operations they need to get started or drive them away from a career in agriculture altogether. This legislation would assist new farmers during the costly, initial phases of opening a farming business and allow them a fighting chance to build a life on the farm for themselves and their families.”
“Farmers are stewards of the land and cornerstones of our society,” Thompson said. “They provide the country with a safe and affordable food supply, and we must cultivate the next generation of farmers. They face tough odds by the very nature of the business. The Young Farmer Success Act will provide incentives for those who would like to pursue a future in the agriculture industry, which will aid our national security and the long-term sustainability of our country.”
“Farmers feed America – and the world – but crushing student loan debt has made it even more difficult for folks to join the industry. That has to change,” Harder said. “Our bipartisan effort would make it easier for folks to pursue a career in agriculture and set new farmers on a path to success.”
“Our country’s farmers are part of the backbone of our nation, and while they are critical to ensuring American families have food to put on the table, all too often, the next generation of farmers is finding that a career in agriculture makes it difficult to put food on their own table,” Zeldin said. “After graduating college, aspiring farmers are saddled with crippling student loan debt and the daunting costs of agricultural businesses, oftentimes driving them from a career feeding our country. However, with farmers over the age of 65 outnumbering young farmers six to one, the U.S. is rapidly approaching a shortage in farmers. This legislation will allow the next generation of farmers to pursue a career serving the American people, eliminating the disincentive to study agriculture in school and getting them on the farm when they graduate.”
“Farming in Upstate is a way of life, and supporting our family farmers means cultivating and empowering the next generation of farmers," Delgado continued. "I am proud to join my colleagues in introducing the bipartisan Young Farmer Success Act, which allows young farmers and growers to join the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and find relief from crushing student loan debt. Innovative programs like these allow young farmers to start and maintain family farms while providing much-needed relief from student loan debt. This is a positive first step to address the barriers young farmers experience and the burden of student debt holding back too many young people in our country.”