New NYFC report finds student loan debt is exacerbating farmer shortage

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Today NYFC released a new report, Farming Is Public Service: A Case for Adding Farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which shows that student loan debt is one of the key barriers preventing more would-be farmers and ranchers from entering agriculture.

Read the full report here. 

FIPS_report_coverThe report contains data from a new survey of more than 700 young farmers as well as data compiled from the USDA Census of Agriculture. Highlights include:

  • Only 6% of all U.S. farmers are under the age of 35. Between 2007 and 2012 America gained only 1,220 principal farm operators under 35. During the same period, the total number of principal farm operators dropped by more than 95,000.
  • Survey respondents carried an average of $35,000 in student loans.
  • 30% of survey respondents said their student loans are delaying or preventing them from farming.
  • 28% of survey respondents say student loan pressure has prevented them from growing their business, and 20% of respondents report being unable to obtain credit because of their student loans.

“Farming is a capital-intensive career with slim margins,” said NYFC executive director and cofounder, Lindsey Lusher Shute. “Faced with student loan debt, many young people decide they can’t afford to farm. In other cases, the bank decides for them by denying them the credit they need for land, equipment, and operations.”

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Photo by LL Gingerich

With thousands of American farmers nearing retirement (the average age of farmers is now 58), the U.S. needs at least 100,000 new farmers over the next two decades. This issue reaches beyond the farm and impacts rural economies because farmers are often the primary revenue generators and employers in rural areas.

According to Davon Goodwin, a 25-year-old farmer and veteran from North Carolina (pictured above), encouraging more young people to become career farmers is essential. “Farming is serving your community at the highest level,” said Goodwin. “Making sure families have access to healthy, local food is as important as being a police officer or a teacher.”

On June 1, legislation was introduced in Congress that would add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), placing the profession of farming alongside careers such as nursing, teaching, and law enforcement that already qualify for the program. Through PSLF, professionals who make 10 years of income-driven student loan payments while serving in a qualifying public service career have the balance of their loans forgiven.

The bipartisan Young Farmer Success Act (H.R. 2590) was introduced by Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Rep. Courtney (D-CT). Co-sponsors include Rep. Pingree (D-ME), Rep. Emmer (R-MN) and Rep. Lofgren (D-CA). The legislation has broad support from nearly 100 farming organizations, including National Farmers Union, FFA, and Farm Aid.

Interested in supporting the Young Farmer Success Act? Visit our Farming Is Public Service page to learn more and take action. 

Young Farmer Success Act introduced in Congress

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University of Maryland agriculture instructor Meredith Epstein loves teaching, but it isn’t the career she imagined for herself. Epstein doesn’t lack the skills, training, or talent for her chosen profession—farming—she simply can’t afford to invest in a farm of her own because she has student loan debt. The Young Farmer Success Act of 2015 would remove this barrier to business investment for Epstein and thousands of other young farmers like her.

The Young Farmer Success Act (House Bill 2590) was introduced on June 1, 2015 by Representative Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Representative Joe Courtney (D-CT). The bill seeks to address a major crisis facing American agriculture: Not enough young people are becoming farmers. As the majority of existing farmers near retirement (the average age of the American farmer is 58), we will need at least 100,000 new farmers to take their place. But between 2007 and 2012, the number of young farmers increased by only 1,220.

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The Young Farmer Success Act of 2015 would incentivize farming as a career by adding farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, an existing program that currently includes professions such as government service, teaching, and nursing. Under the program, public service professionals who make 10 years of income-driven student loan payments would have the balance of their loans forgiven.

careersAs Representative Gibson explains, farmers provide a service every bit as valuable as other professions currently covered by the program.

“Our farmers not only generate vital economic activity in every state, they produce our food and fiber and protect the rural landscape as true public servants,” Gibson said. “This common-sense legislation makes it far easier for our college graduates to return to the family farm or begin production on land of their own, safeguarding a way of life that sustains our nation.”

Farming is an expensive business to enter, in part because of skyrocketing land prices, and beginning farmers often face small profits or even losses in their first years of business. In 2011, the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) conducted a survey of 1,000 young farmers and found that 78% of respondents struggled with a lack of capital. A 2014 NYFC 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.

“To reinvigorate our agricultural workforce, we must invest in a new generation of farmers,” Representative Courtney said. “Skyrocketing higher education costs and a growing student loan debt burden are thwarting young farmers from purchasing farming operations. This needed legislation would assist new farmers during the costly, initial phases of starting up farms and would increase the stock of new farmers to meet our nation’s growing agriculture needs.”

Story1_optAccording to NYFC executive director and cofounder, Lindsey Lusher Shute, who is herself a young farmer, House Bill 2590 has broad support from nearly 100 farming organizations, including National Farmers Union, FFA, and Farm Aid.

“We are extremely proud of the coalition that has come together in support of this bill, and grateful for champions like Representative Gibson and Representative Courtney,” Lusher Shute said. “If we want to support rural economies and feed our nation, not just for the next five years but for the next five generations and beyond, we must make recruiting young farmers a top priority.”

House Bill 2590 will be considered as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is the legislation that houses the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

In the meantime, farmers like Epstein will continue to pursue off-farm jobs while paying down their student loan debt, hoping for a day when they can start a farm of their own.

“I teach beginning farmers at the University of Maryland’s Institute of Applied Agriculture, preparing students to go out and achieve the dream that I can’t,” she said. “I hope that their student debt doesn’t put them in the same position I’m in.”  

Send your Representative an email today,

and tell him/her to support House Bill 2590. 

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I know what you are thinking – you don’t have time for this button. But why take that chance when there’s so much at stake? Even one email can make a big difference. 

Rogue Farm Corps Recruits Aspiring Farmers for their Hands-on Education and Mentoring Programs

Planting at Rogue Farm CorpsFarming is a tough business, and beginning farmers need hands-on experience and mentoring before they can successfully take on a commercial operation. Finding that experience and mentoring can be a significant challenge, and it’s at the heart of why Rogue Farm Corps (RFC) was created. The Oregon-based nonprofit was founded in 2003 by first generation organic farmers in their twenties and thirties who themselves had been mentored and considered it critical to their success. They noticed that many older farmers were retiring without anyone to take over their businesses, while young, inexperienced farmers didn’t know how to get started in commercial farming. RFC’s Executive Director Stu O’Neill says the organization was born from the desire to give beginning farmers access to mentors and in-field training. (more…)

USDA to Release 2012 Census of Ag Data

Every five years, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) takes a hard look at the state of US agriculture by conducting a Census of Agriculture. In a very real way, the census is one of the few opportunities farmers have to tell the USDA about their operations—who they are, and what they need. Today, USDA will publish its full report of the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Below is a snippet of the agency’s preliminary report, which compares select results of the 2012 census to those of the previous census, conducted in 2007. Stay tuned for a further analysis of the census.  Without a doubt, the face of US agriculture has experienced some changes in the past five years, and young, beginning farmers should take notice.
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Republicans and Democrats Introduce New Bill To Aid Beginning Farmers

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

April 25, 2013

Contact: lindsey(at)youngfarmers(dot)org

Republicans and Democrats Introduce New Bill To Aid Beginning Farmers

“Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2013” addresses major barriers to starting a farming career

TIVOLI, NY – Today, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Representative Tim Walz of Minnesota announced the introduction of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2013 in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The two identical bills expand opportunities and remove barriers for beginning farmers and those who wish to pursue a career in agriculture.

In addition to the bill’s lead sponsors, the following members have signed on as original co-sponsors: Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE-1), Chris Gibson (R-NY-19), and House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN-7) in the House, and Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (D-PA), Jon Tester (D-MT), Tom Udall (D-NM), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Al Franken (D-MN) in the Senate.

“Short of jumping on a tractor, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2013 is the best way that members of Congress can help the nation’s young growers,” says Lindsey Lusher Shute, Executive Director at the National Young Farmers Coalition. “The bill tackles the significant barriers to starting a farm in the US, including access to credit, land and training opportunities. NYFC urges Congress to include all of its provisions in the Farm Bill, and to pass a Farm Bill this year.”

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act is a comprehensive legislative package that invests in critical federal conservation, credit, research, and rural development programs that support opportunities for new farmers and ranchers. The bill reduces barriers, such as credit and land access issues, that new agriculture entrepreneurs face, and invests in successful new-farmer training programs and grants to help farmers capture more of the retail food dollar through value-added enterprises.

“With the average age of the U.S. farmer at 57, ensuring that the next generation of American farmers is able to provide the world with a safe, abundant supply of food should be a top priority,” said Congressman Walz, Ranking Member of the U.S. House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy, and Forestry. “To accomplish this goal, we must provide our youth with the training and tools they need to seize opportunity and take up farms of their own. By easing access to lines of credit and land, and creating training programs for new producers, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act works to do just that.”

“As the House considers a five year Farm Bill this year, it is important we include provisions to encourage a new generation of New Yorkers to take up farming.  This is both critical to maintaining the rural nature of our communities and ultimately is a national security issue as we need to have a robust domestic food supply. This bipartisan legislation will expand opportunities for those looking to take up farming and facilitate their entrance into the field.  I applaud the National Young Farmers Coalition for bringing this issue to my attention originally, and look forward to continuing to work with my constituents to ensure we can get these initiatives included in the Farm Bill,” said Congressman Chris Gibson.

Some of the specific proposals in the bill include:

Expanded Credit Options

The bill would create a new microloan program that would make loans of up to $35,000 to young, beginning, and veteran farmers seeking capital to help cover start-up costs, such as purchasing seeds or building a greenhouse. The bill would also give new farmers increased flexibility in meeting loan eligibility requirements for FSA loans to purchase farmland. Finally, the bill would provide funding to jump start an Individual Development Account pilot program aimed at helping beginning farmers with limited financial resources to establish savings accounts that could later be used to cover capital expenditures for a farm or ranch operation, including purchases of land, buildings, equipment, or livestock. 

Access to Farmland

The legislation would help new and aspiring farmers access land to start or expand their farming operations by continuing and improving the successful Down Payment Loan Program, which provides much needed capital to new farmers seeking to purchase property. The bill would also modify the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program to give priority to preserving farmland that is accessible and affordable to new farmers.

New Farmer Training Programs

The bill would renew funding for the successful Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which provides grants to organizations and institutions to establish new farmer training programs. This program is the only federal initiative that is exclusively dedicated to training the next generation of farmers and ranchers.

Value-Added Enterprises

This legislation invests in critical economic development programs, including the popular Value-Added Producer Grants program, which provides grants to farmers to scale up their businesses and add value to their products in order to meet surging consumer demand for high quality, farm-based, value-added food products such as farmstead cheese, salsa, and grass-fed beef.

Agricultural Opportunities for Veterans

The bill would also expand resources and create economic opportunities for military veterans interested in pursuing a career in agriculture by establishing a funding priority for new farmer training and agricultural rehabilitation programs specifically geared at returning veterans, and creating a new Veterans Agricultural Liaison within the USDA to help connect returning veterans with beginning farmer resources and assist them with program eligibility requirements for participation in farm bill programs.

 

National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC) is national network of young and sustainable farmers organizing for our collective success: we’re defining the issues that beginning farmers face, fighting for the policy change that we need, and bringing farmers together in person and online to learn, share and build a stronger community. NYFC is a farmer-led partnership between young farmers and innovative beginning farmer service providers and is fiscally sponsored by the Open Space Institute, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.  

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Will the new food safety laws affect you?

Roxbury farm crew harvesting beets.  Photo courtesy of Roxbury Farm

The way we harvest: just one of the ways food safety laws will affect farming operations.
Photo courtesy of Roxbury Farm.

The short answer is yes.  The new rules will impact the way our food is produced – everything from how seedlings are watered in the ground to how the finished product is marketed. So from the consumer perspective, we are all going to see some changes.

The real question, though, is for farmers and ranchers. Is your operation going to have to make changes? If you’re not sure, don’t feel alone! Farmers across the country are emailing in, confused about exactly how the laws will influence their farm operations. So here is a brief guide to helping you figure out if the Produce Rules (only one of the several rules, but this is the one most likely to affect NYFC members).

(Please note that this article is intended for guidance only – for more complete analysis of how the rules will influence your farm, contact your local USDA office.)

Produce Rules

Do you grow, harvest, pack, or hold produce?  If yes:

  • You are not impacted if:
    • You are only growing for personal consumption,
    • or if the average annual monetary value of the food you sold during the previous 3-year period is no more than $25,000,
    • or if the produce you grow is processed (ie, cheese, pickles, etc) before sale. In this case, look into the Preventive Controls rule instead

    In this case, you should still follow along – in a few years you may fall into a different category!

  • You are partially impacted if:
    • You make less than $500,000 in gross annual sales (NOTE: this is sales, not profit!) and the majority of the food is sold directly and locally,
    • or your produce will undergo commercial processing intended to kill pathogens

In this case, you are still subject to some rules on labeling and marketing (and you also have the potential to lose your partial exemption at the USDA’s discretion)

  • You are fully impacted if:
    • You do not fall into either of the above categories.

In this case, there may be a lot of changes coming your way. Learn more about the rules here! (Keep in mind that even if you are exempt or partially exempt today, in a few years, will you be falling into a different category?)

Food Safety Rules – Coming to a farm near you!

It’s time to start talking about the new food safety bill and how it’s going to affect you.  Food safety isn’t high on anyone’s list of exciting things to spend their free time reading about, but take a few moments, because how the law gets written this year will have a long-running impact on how small farms can operate.

Watering onions 2013

How often are you testing your farm’s water?

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law two years ago, is a plan to update food safety policy in a way that had not been done since the 1930’s.  It’s culminating this year, with the FDA releasing it’s proposed rules, to be approved later this year.  So far, two rules have been released as drafts:

  • Produce Rule — standards for growing, harvesting, packing, and holding produce; and
  • Preventive Controls Rule — requirements for food facilities, including on-farm processing.

How could these rules affect your farm?  Pretty much every part of your day on the farm has to do with food safety.  From sampling and testing your irrigation water to your food-processing room’s layout to how often you wash your harvesting tools – it’s all in there!  

NYFC has been working with policy experts with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and other groups to analyze the new rules (which stretch over literally thousands of pages!) to discern how they will impact beginning farmers.  Food safety is becoming a polarizing issue, with consumer safety being pitted against farm viability.  Our hopes in this are to help the FDA craft something that provides the safety protections needed while not putting overly-onerous loads on small and beginning farmers.

We’ve got a month and a half before the comment period comes to a close.  In that time, we want to hear from you so that we can write useful comments to the FDA!  Got a question or idea for us?  Head over to the FSMA discussion at the NYFC Farmers Forum.

In the mean time, there are some concrete things you can do:

  1. Get reading!  The rules are available to read here.  It’s not quite as engaging as E. L. James, but at least give it a quick skim!
  2. Spread the word!  Start talking to other farmers about food safety and how these rules will affect you.
  3. Stay tuned to this blog!  We will be publishing more pieces about the rules and asking for your input.  So consider this a wake-up call!

Thank you for speaking up! Reporting back on Farmer Programs in the Senate

First of all, a huge thank you to everyone who took the time last week to sign the petition, make calls, tell friends, etc. about the Senate’s budget vote.  As a refresher, there were three big pushes we had:

  1. to push funding for the beginning farmer programs that had been left high and dry in New Years Eve Farm Bill extension;
  2. to fix the problem with the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which had been updated in a way that didn’t allow for new 2013 applicants to the program;
  3. and to pass the Tester amendments that were intended to strip away two anti-farmer provisions to the budget – one on GMO’s and one on the meatpacking industry.  For more of a refresher, check back on some of last week’s blog posts.
Farmers at the 2013 Farmer Fly-in meeting with Senator Stabenow

Farmers at the 2013 Farmer Fly-in meeting with Senator Stabenow, the chair of the Senate Ag Committee

So how did things turn out?  Well, we had a mixed success.  Of the three pushes, we did get one: CSP was fixed so that farmers can apply for it in 2013.  This may not seem like a huge victory, but it really is: CSP helps countless farmers every year institute conservation practices on their farm (everything from riparian buffers to reducing pesticide drift to building pollinator habitat) that would be cost-prohibitive otherwise.  So we are enthused that the USDA will be able to continue supporting those amazing practices across the country.  (And, as always, this isn’t the end of the process – we’re going to stay with this to make sure it makes it through the House and into actual law.)

Unfortunately, of course, that means that we didn’t get funding for the rest of the programs, and we weren’t able to strip back those two anti-farmer riders on the budget bill.  So let’s take a look at both of those:

First, in terms of the stranded programs that were once again left unfunded (this is that long laundry list that we’ve been focusing on, including the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, Organic Cost-share, and much more), we don’t have a lot of options left for short term solutions.  We will keep working on it, though, and let you know if there are other opportunities.  However, the big picture is that we should start focusing more on the next five-year farm bill (that will hopefully be done later this year) and less on correcting the short-term Farm Bill extension we’re currently under.

Second, the trouble in stripping the riders had to do with the Senate’s extreme urgency to pass the budget bill (the deadline to avoid a government shut-down is next week!).  There were nearly 100 amendments proposed – some good and some bad – and ultimately a compromise was made where almost all of them were left out in order to facilitate the budget’s passing.  So while it’s not great, this was really a result of the government’s extreme polarization that forced things to come so close to the edge, and thus need an eleventh-hour solution.  We do want to give a shout-out to Senator Tester, who was the only Democratic Senator to vote against moving forward with the bill.  He remained dedicated to the end to his amendments, and we applaud his efforts on our behalf.

So regarding these nasty riders: yes, they are bad.  The silver lining, though, is that they are in a 6-month budget bill, so they aren’t permanent.  Next fall we will get a chance again to pull them back and fix those anti-farmer (and anti-justice!) travesties.

OK, well that’s the brief recap from Washington over the past week.  We got a lot of emails from folks saying they made their calls, so thank you for making a difference!  We also got feedback from multiple legislators’ offices saying they’d been swamped with calls, so great job!  This is only the beginning of a groundswell of support for these pro-farmer, sustainable-agriculture programs, and regardless of this week’s votes, we are so psyched to be at the beginning of an evolutionary shift in government’s views on farming!

Update on pro-farmer Tester amendments – it’s not too late to take action!

First, a gigantic thank you to those who made calls and signed the petition supporting the Tester amendments this week!

Funny cow, photo courtesy of Martouf

photo courtesy of Martouf

As a quick refresher, the two amendments are to remove two hideous riders to the Senate Continuing Resolution bill (in layman’s terms, they are mini-bills tacked on to the 6-month budget proposal that the Senate is producing).  The first rider would strip away the protections that ranchers receive from the GIPSA act, which stops large packinghouse purchasers from forcing unfair contracts on ranches.  The second undermines the courts when they temporarily halt the sale of a potentially dangerous genetically modified crop by letting the USDA continue to planting of that crop.  This not only endangers farmers and consumers who aren’t then protected, but it actually undercuts the legal system of the entire country!  You can read more about the two riders on the NYFC action page here or on yesterday’s blog post.

We initially reported that the vote was to be yesterday afternoon, but because of the onslaught of messages they got yesterday – emails, phone calls, and webforms – the Senate decided to push off the vote until early next week.  What that means is, we are being heard!

It also means that we’ve got more time to press them to stand up against the riders.  Please give a call or send an email today or this weekend – let your Senator know that they need to support the Tester amendments!  (And for Montana residents, please get in touch with Senator Tester’s office and thank him for his support!).

Two ways to take action: NYFC Action Page, or information on calling your Senators’ office.

Take Action Now to Help Independent Livestock Producers

The Salad Garden's hogs remind us why we care!

The Salad Garden’s hogs remind us why we care!

Independent meat producers and farmers everywhere need your help right now to defeat some terrible language that was included in the Senate’s Continuing Resolution.

As Wes reported earlier today, the Senate’s bill to fund government programs through the rest of 2013 (known as a Continuing Resolution) includes two provisions that support large meat industries and biotech giants, while disregarding the voices of family farmers, independent growers, and sustainable agriculture.

The first provision overrides the protections that ranchers have under the GIPSA rules (which help balance power between small ranches and farms and the giant purchasing companies that dictate prices,) and the second undercuts judicial review for biotechnology by allowing the USDA to permit continued planting of a genetically engineered crop even after a court has ruled that further studies need to be done on it.  (How scary is that?!)

Luckily, we can do something to stop this. Senator Jon Tester of Montana is introducing two amendments – one for each of the awful provisions – that removes them from the Continuing Resolution, and he needs all of us to help him move the Senate in support.

Ask your Senator to support the Tester amendments to overturn these bad riders today!

TAKE 2 MINUTES TO TAKE ACTION NOW