College grads going into jobs as teachers, doctors, or government officials have a sweet out from student debt: work 10 years in a public service profession, and the federal government will forgive your loans.
If you’re out of college and looking to start a farm, however, you’re out of luck. Student debt, combined with the low income early farmers can expect, creates a huge obstacle for many young people who want to make a living on the pasture.
A new bill introduced in Congress today looks to change that by adding farmers to the list of public service professions eligible for student debt forgiveness. Advocates argue that farming is a public good—everyone needs to eat—and the agriculture industry is under threat as farmers get older.
Under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, created in 2007, full-time teachers, doctors, nurses, public interest attorneys, and government and nonprofit employees are eligible to have their federal student debt balances forgiven after they make 10 years of reduced monthly payments on their loans.
“If you want to be a self-reliant nation, you need farmers,” Rep. Chris Gibson, (R-N.Y.), one of the bill’s sponsors, told Fusion. "We have a fair number of young farmers who are interested in pursuing the calling of farming, but when they look at the revenues they're going to get from this hard work, it's just not going to pay the bills."
A generation of farmers around the country are nearing retirement, so encouraging young farmers to start their own farms is becoming more and more urgent. The average age of farmers in the U.S. was 58.3 in 2012, compared with 50.5 in 1982, according to the Department of Agriculture. When these older farmers retire, there need to be eager young farmers ready to take over their land—Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has set a goal of creating 100,000 new farmers over the next few years.
“If we don’t incentivize things like farming, there’s not going to be anybody who wants to do it,” Gina Black, 29, who runs Birdsong Farms, a small 20-acre farm in northeastern Kansas, told Fusion.
When Black started her farm in early 2013, she gave up a "cool city lifestyle" to fulfill her love of growing food. But her $15,000 in student debt from Austin Community College prevented her from getting the loans necessary to buy equipment and make capital expenses, obstacles that stunted her farm’s growth, Black said.
By working two jobs and saving up, Black has managed to build a sustainable business, selling produce, eggs, and meat at farmers markets in Atchison, Kansas. But she says the profession should be easier to break into for other people her age.
“We need to have more people getting into farming and feeding our country,” Black said. “Talk about the most basic needs of a human being—if growing food is not a public service, I don’t know what is.”
Gibson's bill would only apply to those making at least $35,000 a year by farming, not to those who farm as a hobby. It could be voted on later this year.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.