Federal Policy Regional Impact: The Young Farmer Success Act
America’s shrinking supply of farmers is a vexing problem for all of us working to build a sustainable food system. In the past 80 years, we have lost nearly half of our farmers, from nearly 7 million in 1935 to 3.2 million in 2012.1 The farmers we have left are increasingly approaching, if not exceeding retirement age. More than half of all farmers are over the age of 55, and in 2012, the average farmer age rose to an historical high of 58.2
Two-thirds of farmland will need to transition to a new operator in the next 25 years, and we will not have enough new farmers to keep that land from falling out of production.
If trends continue, two-thirds of farmland will need to transition to a new operator in the next 25 years, and we will not have enough new farmers to keep that land from falling out of production.3 Between 1982 and 2012, the number of farmers under the age of 44 decreased by nearly half a million.4 Similarly, the number of farmers with less than 10 years experience decreased by 20% between 1997 and 2012.
Student Loan Debt Holding Back Young Farmers
Though the cost involved in starting a farm – land, equipment, and inputs, to name a few – can be daunting for aspiring farmers of any age, the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) points to an added and unprecedented barrier for young people – student loan debt. In 2015, the debt per graduating student loan borrower reached an all-time high of over $35,000, more than double (when adjusted for inflation) what it was for 1993 graduates. In addition, between 1993 and 2015, the percentage of graduating students who borrowed money to pay for college went from 45% to 71%.
To understand exactly how student loan debt holds young people back in agricultural careers, NYFC recently surveyed 700 of their members and supporters, including current and aspiring farmers. They found that student loan debt prevented 30% of respondents from pursuing a career in farming and another 20% from growing their farm business. In addition, 20% of respondents were denied credit because of their student loan debt.
The Young Farmer Success Act
To address this issue, NYFC is working to get legislation, the Young Farmer Success Act, passed into law. This bill will add farming to the list of careers that make one eligible for student loan forgiveness under the Public Student Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), which provides student loan forgiveness for those employed in certain public sector jobs, such as teaching or nursing. Program participants make 10 years of monthly payments while working a qualifying job and the remainder of their debt is forgiven.
The Young Farmer Success Act would allow those working on farms who gross more than $35,000 in sales to qualify for the Public Student Loan Forgiveness Program.
The Young Farmer Success Act would allow those working on farms that gross more than $35,000 in sales to qualify for the program. Eric Hansen, Policy Analyst at the National Young Farmers Coalition, said it was important to include these minimum sales amounts to encourage employment on commercial farms as opposed to hobby farms. The PSLF itself has limits on maximum income levels to ensure that those in need are the ones who receive loan forgiveness. And although the bill is called the Young Farmer Success Act, there are no age requirements to participate in the PSLF.
One potential drawback to the bill is that it does not require farmers to use ecological farming practices in order to participate in the PSLF. As this is a core issue for NESAWG and our network partners, we will have to continue raising awareness about sustainable agriculture systems and advocating for federal programs that support them should the bill become law.
Strong Northeastern Support
The Young Farmer Success Act has been introduced by Representative Chris Gibson (R-NY) in the House as a marker bill for the larger Higher Education Act (HEA), meaning it is language intended to go into the HEA. It has bipartisan co-sponsorship, including five Northeastern Representatives – Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Joe Courtney (D-CT), Sean Patrick Maloney, (D-NY), Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY).
Hansen said it is not an accident that six of the bill’s eight sponsors are from the Northeast – interest in farming among young people is strong in the Northeast, but barriers to entry, particularly land access, are very high.
Photo courtesy of the Poughkeepsie Farm Project
1 Source: The National Agricultural Statistics Survey
2 Source: 2012 Census of Agriculture
3 Source: Farming is Public Service, a report by the National Young Farmers Coalition