Support Agriculture By Supporting New Growers [Opinion]

A few months ago I wrote about the Young Farmer Success Act, as well as in the GenNext Growers feature that month. It’s a topic we at the magazine feel is an important issue facing the next generation of growers. Comments on my stories indicated many of you felt differently.

This Young Farmer Success Act has been getting a lot of media attention as of late. In fact, executives from Clif Bar endorsed a letter created by the American Sustainable Business Council, which urges Congress to move the bill forward.

“Agriculture has become such a technical venture that you really need to have that college degree” Bob Young, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, told MarketWatch. Young says software programs, chemicals, and other farm tasks have become so technology-focused, education is imperative. If a young grower entering the workforce doesn’t have some education in accounting, business, or technology, they’re left in the dust.

The cost of college is astounding. It’s not what it was 30 years ago, 20 years ago, or even less. Today, 71% graduates leave college with a bachelor’s degree and an average student loan debt of $29,400, according to figures from the White House. Figures from the Wall Street Journal show a 10-fold increase in student loan indebtedness since the early 1990s, clocking in at less than $10,000 in 1993.

Young people see agriculture as too risky a startup-venture to enter into with a substantial student aid burden. They don’t have the capital to secure loans to start farming.

According to data from USDA’s Census of Agriculture, only 6% of the 2.1 million farmers in the U.S. are under the age of 35. In 1992, that figure was 16%. And between 2007 and 2012, only 1,220 new young farmers joined the agriculture workforce. And with the average net cash income per farm of $43,750, that doesn’t leave much room to pay off any student loans a new farmer may have accrued.

Student loan debt is a serious financial burden nationwide, with serious implications for the future. It could limit future generations’ interest in taking over your business when the time comes. Data from the Census of

Agriculture shows within the next five years, 91.5 million acres of farmland is expected to change hands.

“The USDA says that we need to inspire 100,000 new farmers over the next decade or we are going to get more consolidation and more imports from overseas,” Rep. Chris Gibson told CivilEats. “If you want to be a thriving country, you have to grow and produce locally. We’re not nearly keeping up.”

And this is the bright spot for young growers, because of that 6% of new farmers, 22% of their sales comes from direct-to-market and 26% from organic. These numbers are going to continue to grow as local produce is a big focus of the next generation of consumers.

The Young Farmer Success Act isn’t a handout. It’s a repayment plan, where those entering the agriculture industry are making income-based repayments consistently for 10 years, prior to qualifying for debt forgiveness. That means they have to make a 10-year commitment to agriculture before benefiting from such a program. If in 10 years, a grower has outstanding student debt, it’s forgiven.

This act may not have a lot to do with you, on the surface, but if you want agriculture to have a seat at the table in the future, we need dedicated young people willing to give a agriculture a chance. And they need all of our support.

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