Young farmers are facing tough odds—yet they have very little support. The average age of the American farmer is 58 years old, while only 6 percent are under the age of 35 years old. In the U.S., 63 percent of farmland is on the cusp of being passed on and many of these older stewards will need to find new tenants or sell their land in the next five years. But in many cases, that transition just isn’t happening—and banks, equity firms, and large corporate farms are buying up the land instead. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of farm operators in the U.S. dropped by 90,000, while the number of young farmers increased by only 1,200.
The NYFC has pinpointed a number of barriers of entry for new farmers, including sky-high land prices, lack of access to water, and lack of training. Along with these hurdles, NYFC has zeroed in on an issue affecting about 40 million Americans and around 70 percent of college graduates: student-loan debt.
Like Goodwin, people with student-loan debt are less likely to buy houses or cars, and they save less for retirement. This applies to would-be farmers: In a survey of 700 members with student loan debt, NYFC said that nearly 30 percent are waiting to pursue farming, or chose not to pursue it at all, because they don’t think a farming salary would help them pay off their loans.
“It gets frustrating because we hear that we need more farmers, but I don’t see the government—local, state, or federal—trying to increase the number of us,” Goodwin said.
Now, NYFC is campaigning to elevate the role of the farmer to that of a public servant, much like a doctor, teacher, or police officer. It’s an issue that NYFC has lobbied strongly for in recent months, releasing a report on the matter in June and recruiting celebrities like chef Curtis Stone to advocate for the cause.
“Farmers are stewarding our environment, producing food we eat, and they are the anchor of rural communities,” says Eric Hansen, a policy analyst at NYFC. “A really important public benefit is being provided by these farmers.”
With the help of the NYFC, Representatives Chris Gibson, a republican from New York and Joe Courtney, a democrat from Connecticut, introduced the Young Farmer Success Act in Congress last June. The bill would add farming to a list of careers that receive student-loan relief through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Under the program, participants would have the balance of their student loans forgiven after working full-time on a farm for 10 years while making income-driven payments towards their loans. There would be no age limit to take advantage of the program, but eligible farmers would need to work on a farm or ranch that brings in annual gross revenue of $35,000 (adjusted annually for inflation) or more.
Some have criticized the bill for not putting an age or income cap on the program, but Hansen says that the bill’s wording ensures that those with the most need will be given the most aid. Because loan payments are based on a farmer’s yearly income, they will rise when his or her salary does. “If the farmer makes enough money, they will pay off the loans before the loan forgiveness kicks in,” Hansen wrote in an email.