How To Grow A New Generation Of Farmers: Forgive Student Debt

You need to have a pretty good understanding of what career you want during junior year of high school. That's when the career counselor sits you down, goes through your options, and offers up a suggested career that won't have you living on the streets.

As a result, most of us are steered into the direction of "acceptable" careers: accountant, lawyer, doctor, the murky "business" person, maybe doing something in computer science. However, one of the careers that rarely makes the cut is farming. And that makes sense from a purely economical standpoint. Farming does not lead to riches.

But as a full generation moves away from the industry, we have a big problem.

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The average age of the American farmer is 58.3 years. (The median age, if you want to use that as a barometer, isn't much younger, at 55.9 years.) Thirty years ago, the average age was 50.3 years. In fact, the number of farmers over the age of 65 outnumber farmers under 35 by a factor of six to one.

Basically, if you're a farmer, you're probably getting up there in age. And unlike other industries, there isn't a new generation waiting to take over. Seeing as farming is one of the more important professions in the world, that's a big issue.

"It's a major problem," says Lindsey Shute, representative for the National Young Farmers Coalition. "Between the last two censuses, there's only an increase of 3,000 young farmers. Tom Vilsak, the Secretary of Agriculture, is calling for 100,000 new farmers."

The big issue, according to Shute, is that there simply isn't enough of a financial incentive for young people to choose farming as their profession. "There's just no way enough young people enter agriculture to replace the number of retiring farmers unless there is a very clear career path." One great barrier is the amount of student loan debt they carry after school.

"People graduating college who have significant debts are choosing not to farm at all so that they can make their student loan payments," Shute says. And the farmers who actually do decide to get into the business are hamstrung with enough payments that they can't grow their business and make it a profitable venture. "They can't leverage the capital they need to either operate their farms or purchase land."

Which is why the National Young Farmers Coalition are offering a solution.

The group is calling for Congress to introduce legislation that would add farmers to the definition of what qualifies for "public service student loan forgiveness." Currently, this includes careers like teachers, doctors, nurses, and non-profit employees. The student loan forgiveness plan works like this: After ten years of income-driven repayments, the rest of the student debt is forgiven. This would allow young farmers to focus on starting and growing their businesses without having the burden of making hefty payments.

As of now there simply isn't enough awareness about this issue. "There is an issue of political inertia," says Shute. "And that's a problem for farmers now who are struggling to make ends meet and get their businesses off the ground, while paying their student debt off at the same time."

If you're worried about the future of our nation's farming (and if you're a creature that needs food to survive, you should be), then head over to the National Young Farmers Coalition's website to sign up for updates on this cause. Barring that, telling friends, family, and your elected representatives about the issue isn't the worst idea either.

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