In the United States, many consider the level of student debt for higher education to be a national crisis. Increasingly, legislators and political figures seek solutions to student loan debt. Young farmers, however, are often left out of these efforts.
Farming is a complex and changing profession. Growing and producing food is challenging enough, but farmers also need to know how to market their products and manage their finances. Besides, between the changing climate and new technologies emerging to increase efficiency in the field, farmers need to learn how to adapt. Increasingly, they gain the skills to do so by attending university.
But as more students receive higher education on how to best manage farms, more farmers are leaving school with tens of thousands of dollars in debt that prevents them from succeeding in the (literal) field.
Meanwhile, America’s existing farmers are starting to age out of the profession without clear successors. A fundamental, somewhat-apocalyptic question lingers: without farmers, who will grow our food?
Two bills — one in the House, and another in the Senate — aim to address student loan debt for farmers. Similar bills, though, have perished in Congress over the past few years. Will this time be different?
The House bill: The Young Farmer Success Act
In June 2019, Connecticut Democratic Representative Joe Courtney introduced the Young Farmer Success Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bipartisan bill proposes adding farming and ranching to the list of professions covered by the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
Launched in 2007, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program attempts to reduce the student debt burden on Americans working in low-paying jobs deemed valuable to public service, including nurses, teachers, government employees and non-profit workers.
After 10 years of payments, which are scaled based on income, the remainder of the participants’ student debt is supposed to be forgiven (though whether or not it is actually forgiven is another matter — we’ll get back to that).
The National Young Farmers Coalition argues that farmers should quality for the program, too. The group spearheaded efforts to add farmers to the list of jobs that qualify for student loan forgiveness because of the value farmers provide to the public sector.
“Farming is different than the other options because it’s for profit, but our farmers are getting into agriculture because they want to do similar work.” said Sophie Ackoff, vice president of policy and campaigns at the National Young Farmers Coalition. “It’s capital intensive [and] it’s not lucrative. They want to grow healthy food for their communities and steward the land.”
Mark Lapping, professor emeritus at the University of Southern Maine, said that farmers provide public services that they do not sell, but are just as valuable to the greater good as public service careers.
“Farms produce a lot of goods and services that we don’t pay for,” Lapping said. “Farms create beautiful landscapes that attract tourist dollars. When operated in an ecologically sustainable way, they are high quality water and carbon sinks. They provide wildlife habitat. We don’t see them as public benefits, but they are public benefits like public service.”
Why forgive student loan debt for farmers?
Contrary, perhaps, to public perception, the National Young Farmers Coalition 2017 survey found that nearly 70 percent of farmers receive some form of higher education.
“Farming is very complex,” Ackoff said. “It includes not just production, but being able to market and communicate about your products. [You have to] be a biologist and a businessperson at the same time.”
The survey found that the average student loan debt held by farmers is around $35,000. Such debt, Ackoff explained, is especially inhibitive to young farmers.
“It’s very difficult to learn how to farm when making an apprentice wage while paying student loans,” Ackoff explained. “Once you start a farm business, it’s very hard to leverage credit [to buy land] when you have that debt.”
Meanwhile, many American farmers are aging out of the profession with no clear successors.
“We see the average age of the farmer creeping up steadily,” Lapping said. “There’s a real concern about the transfer of assets. There is an overall crisis in who the next generation of farmers will be.”
Lapping noted that the issue of aging farmers is of great concern in New England especially. In fact, Rep. Chellie Pingree from Maine co-sponsored the Young Farmer Success Act in the House of Representatives.
“The student debt crisis is holding back an entire generation from doing what they love, and that extends to those who love farming and working with the land,” Pingree commented in an email. “In Maine, we have a lot of young people who absolutely love working on farms, but have to leave for higher-paying jobs because they need to pay off loans.”
Criticism of the Young Farmer Success Act
The current House bill applies to farmers with “a full-time job as an employee or manager of a qualified farm or ranch” with a gross revenue higher than $35,000 a year. Ackoff said that requirement is designed to prevent hobby farmers and non-professional farmers from benefiting from the program.
Critics of the Young Farmer Success Act, however, claim that such restrictions push young farmers into commercial agriculture, which is incongruous with a program designed to support careers in public service.
“There is a bias in the bill,” Lapping said. “It means as a young farmer, you’re going to be working in a more traditional commercial farming environment. That’s not unimportant, particularly in a state like Maine, where we have many young farmers going into agriculture [on farms that] aren’t clearing $35,000 a year.”
“That’s the strongest opposition that we get to our proposal is that [critics] don’t want another subsidy to wealthy agribusiness,” Ackoff admitted. “[Choosing the $35,000 minimum] was a process of talking with farmers and partner organizations and coming to some consensus around what would be considered providing a real service to the community.”
To farmers earning less than the minimum, Ackoff said, “Keep doing what you’re doing, and we hope you get to the point where you’re bringing that in — otherwise, it’s not really sustainable.”
Then, there are the problems with the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program itself. Nearly 99 percent of the people who applied for loan forgiveness through the program have been rejected due to unclear requirements and restrictions.
“That might lead to some overall reluctance on the part of the administration to see another group of students covered by this,” Lapping said.
Still, Ackoff said that Young Farmer Success Act advocates in the House of Representative do not want to give up on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
“[For] our champions in the House…the goal is to improve the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program so it works for everyone,” Ackoff said. “We don’t want farmers to have a perfectly functioning program and have our teachers left behind.”
Ackoff said that she believes adding farmers to the list of public service-related careers would be a win, even if the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is flawed.
“In principle, we believe farmers deserve to be included in that list,” Ackoff said. “Even if the program isn’t fixed tomorrow, there is recognition [in] including farmers in that group of professions.”
The Senate bill: the Student Loan Forgiveness for Farmers and Ranchers Act
In light of some of the challenges and criticisms faced by the Young Farmers Success Act, Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy introduced the Student Loan Forgiveness for Farmers and Ranchers Act in July 2019. The Senate bill would establish a debt forgiveness program separate from the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program that is overseen by the Departments of Education and Agriculture.
The Senate bill also excludes any producer whose acreage exceeds their county’s average by at least 30 percent and whose annual revenue is greater than $1 million. Though there is no age limit to the program, only farmers who have farmed for less than 10 years qualify for the program, which limits its eligibility to beginning farmers.
“There are certainly ways to ensure that big agribusiness aren’t benefiting from this program,” Ackoff said.
Still, critics have lingering concerns about how a farmer is defined by the bill.
“I worry about all of the part-time farmers, all of the people beginning organic farmers and what constitutes a bona fide farmer,” Lapping said. “I’m more than a little concerned about that.”
What stands in the way of these solutions to student loan debt for farmers?
In the grand scheme of student debt crisis, Lapping said farmers might not be seen as the highest legislative priority.
“Farmers only constitute about two percent of the American population,” Lapping said. “One could ask why this group as opposed to another group, or as opposed to the overall issue of student debt.”
Besides, both the House and Senate bills are attached to the Higher Education Act and can only move forward if it is reauthorized.
The Higher Education Act, a 1965 law providing resources to institutes of higher education and financial assistance to their students, is designed to be reauthorized every four to five years. Due to political gridlock, however, it has not been reauthorized since 2008.
Ackoff said that past attempts to include farmers in student debt forgiveness in 2015 and 2017 were quashed by Congress’s failure to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.
The timeline for farmer student loan forgiveness is, thus, up in the air. The House and Senate both need to propose their version of the reauthorized act before they debate, amend and — hopefully — pass it.
Ackoff is hopeful that the House will include farmers in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program when they submit their proposed updates to the Higher Education Act in the next few weeks. The Senate may take longer.
“There are just different dynamics in the House and the Senate right now,” Ackoff said. “We’re doing our best to advocate for this in different climates.”
The Higher Education Act reauthorization could also stagnate again this year. Then, Ackoff and other farmer student loan forgiveness advocates would have to wait until the next Congressional session to try again. Previous attempts to pass farmer student loan forgiveness in 2015 and 2017 ended this way, too.
“My intel from [Washington] D.C. is that it’s not looking bright for passing this year,” Ackoff admitted.
Meanwhile, the National Young Farmers Coalition will continue to advocate for the bills and work for farmer student loan forgiveness at the state level. Ackoff said that such programs have already been implemented in New York and Montana, while Wisconsin is considering adding one of their own.
“Now, when people think about farmer challenges, student loans are now higher on the list,” Ackoff said. “I think we’ve done a really good job with consciousness raising on the issue.”
Ackoff said that farmer student loan debt could even be addressed outside of the Department of Education’s grasp, if need be. There is precedent: the U.S. Department of Agriculture runs a program to help veterinarians pay off student loans. If these bills fail, she said, the next step would be to fight for a similar program for farmers.
“I think that the threat to the agriculture industry can’t be underestimated,” Ackoff said. “If young people can’t succeed in farming because of their student loans, we will eventually have to come up with solutions. Hopefully, it will be sooner rather than later.”