Should Farming Get You Out of Paying Your Student Loan Debt?

Young farmers are pushing for a change to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

(Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

Jan 16, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Two of the most commonly cited stumbling blocks to becoming a farmer are access to land and the piles of start-up capital required. Have you seen the price of a tractor lately? We’re talking $25,000 at the very least—and that’s for a small machine. But as the current crop of farmers in America slips past retirement age and into the grey beyond, still working, a third barrier prevents a new generation from taking over the fields: student loan debt.

“Student loans are a huge, huge obstacle for young people pursuing farming careers,” said Lindsey Lusher Shute, executive director and cofounder of the National Young Farmers Coalition and the co-owner of New York’s Hearty Roots Community Farm. “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.”

To make the numbers work, the NYFC has launched a “Farming Is Public Service” campaign, pushing for farmers to included in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, a federal program that incentivizes recent graduates into high-need, low-income positions in education, government, and medical fields. Those in the program make income-based payments on their loans, thus lowering the amount paid each month; the PSLF program forgives the balance of the debt after 120 payments and 10 years of full-time employment in a qualifying public service.

With an aging workforce and a huge generation gap with few to no farmers to backfill, the U.S. could soon face a shortage of people growing food. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack estimates that the U.S. needs 100,000 new farmers in the next few years.I would say that’s really just a baseline,” Lusher Shute said. “Between the last two ag censuses we only had about 3,000 more young people come into agriculture.”

Davon Goodwin, a North Carolina–based farm manager, is one of those new members of the farming ranks. He told NYFC, “Making sure families have access to healthy, local food is as important as being a police officer or teacher,” arguing that he and others should qualify for the same type of loan forgiveness.

After returning injured from service in Afghanistan, Goodwin found a renewed sense of purpose through his employment on the 477-acre Fussy Gourmet Farms, where he helps grow Muscadine grapes and raises pastured chicken, pork, sheep, and goats. He would like to save money to start his own farm while working there, but his monthly student loan payment makes a dream like that seem nearly impossible.

Even those who do manage to start their own farms run into problems. Jesse Hersh launched Con Semilla Seed Company this year, growing locally adapted, open-pollinated vegetable, herb, flower, and grain seeds on the farm he leases in Goleta, California. As is common for new businesses, including farms, Hersh has been operating at a loss in his first year. But having nothing left over after the farm expenses are paid makes it difficult to cover his student loan debt, which totals a third of Con Semilla’s gross revenue.

“Organic farmers produce the food necessary to build healthy communities. We steward soil and agricultural traditions, and are working hard to protect public health,” Hersh told the NYFC. “If up-and-coming American farmers are discouraged from starting farming careers due to student loans, there will be no one left to carry the torch when our older farmers retire. Reducing student loan debt could actually encourage a whole new generation of young farmers to get going on their dreams.”

There’s an additional financial problem around agricultural growth, Lusher Shute explained. “The farmers that are figuring it out, who are able to make their loan payments and farm, when they go to leverage the capital that they need to scale and grow their farm business to really make it financially viable, they’re being turned down for operating loans and for farm ownership loans.” When the Farm Service Agency is considering an application and looks at an operation’s cash flow, a reduction in a monthly student loan bill could mean more farmers would qualify for additional federal loans from the USDA to grow their business.

“There need to be national policies that are really incentivizing agriculture as a career,” she said. At the state level, only New York currently offers any farmer loan forgiveness. “But with only 10 farmers awarded up to $10,000 per year, for a total of five years, the program is competitive,” and it only provides relief for a small group of people.

“Right now, about 70 percent of college graduates have student debt,” Lusher Shute continued. “So if you’re basically saying 70 percent of our best and brightest aren’t going to be able to farm because they have student loans, we’re just never going to make the numbers. This is why student debt just has to be addressed—to enable a new generation of young people to farm and to find financial success in farming.”

If you’re a young farmer with student-loan debt, the NYFC wants to hear your story.Right now we’re scheduling meetings with members of Congress,” Lusher Shute said. “When we walk into a meeting in D.C., the more farmers that members of Congress have heard from and the more stories they’ve heard, the more understanding they have of the issue,” and the more likely they are to push for including farmers in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.