This article was originally posted by Eric Hansen and Sophie Ackoff on the Food Day Blog. Click here to read the original.
Student loan debt is on the rise. For our nation’s young farmers and ranchers, paying off these loans is a critical barrier to starting a career in agriculture. Young people graduating from college with debt are finding that they either cannot afford to farm and pay down their loans, or are prevented from financing their new farm businesses because of this existing debt.
Just as we’ve provided incentives for Americans to enter medicine, education, and other public service careers, we need to encourage young people to make careers in agriculture. Farming is a public service – we must add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
The Challenge: We Need New Farmers
Farmers are critical to our nation’s well being – they produce the food we eat, steward half our nation’s land area, and support rural economies.
Unfortunately, not enough young people are living and farming in rural America.
- The average age of a farmer in the U.S. continues to climb – in 2012 it reached over 58 years for the first time.
- While USDA has significantly increased its attention to beginning farmers, the number of those farmers actually fell by 20% between 2007 and 2012.
- Only 6% of farmers are under 35 years old.
Clearly, dramatic steps are needed to increase the number of farmers entering agriculture.
New Farmers Need Forgiveness
In 2012, 71% of all new four-year college graduates had student loan debt. If farming is not a viable occupation for young people with debt, the pool of potential young farmers is very small. Fortunately, with the Higher Education Act (HEA) up for reauthorization this year, we have the perfect opportunity to address the issue.
When it was first passed in 1965, the HEA was designed to help another profession that the U.S. critically needed – teachers. Now, this Act includes the entire federal student loan system and loan forgiveness programs for a host of critical careers including teachers, firefighters, nurses, and public servants. As the HEA is reauthorized, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program should be expanded to cover farmers. For farmers who make 10 years of income-driven student loan payments, the balance of their federal loan debt will be forgiven. Not only will this help farmers get out from under debt that their profession cannot pay off, but it will provide an incentive for new farmers to enter careers in agriculture.
Now is the Time to Act
As American farmers continue to grow older and retire, the need for new farmers has never been greater. We cannot, however, expect new farmers to succeed in a capital-intensive career when they are saddled by student loan debt. Adding farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program will create a pathway for young people with student debt to succeed in agriculture.