California Forum

Congress can help young farmers succeed

According the 2012 Census of Agriculture, two-thirds of U.S. farmland will change ownership over the next 25 years. And between 2007 and 2012, only 1,220 people under the age of 35 became farmers.
According the 2012 Census of Agriculture, two-thirds of U.S. farmland will change ownership over the next 25 years. And between 2007 and 2012, only 1,220 people under the age of 35 became farmers. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

The future of our food supply rests in the hands of a debt-ridden youth.

Let me explain. I am one of 43 million Americans with student loan debt, and I am one of about 250,000 young farmers – 8 percent of our nation’s farm operators.

I didn’t set out to be a farmer, but I love it. I will be in ag for the rest of my life. My wife is the daughter of an almond and walnut farmer in Chico, and I decided to join the family business.

My father-in-law is prudent, innovative and fun, and he has fed the world for the past 30 years. He is 65, slightly above the average age of U.S. farmers, and he is at the point in life where, in his words, he wants to become “irrelevant” to the family farm. Who can blame him?

According the 2012 Census of Agriculture, two-thirds of U.S. farmland will change ownership over the next 25 years. These numbers aren’t alarming until you realize that the study also found that between 2007 and 2012, we added only 1,220 new farmers under the age of 35. That tells me we need more young farmers.

Why aren’t more young people becoming farmers? The National Young Farmers Coalition recently surveyed more than 700 young farmers about their student loan debt and found that 30 percent of respondents are not farming or delaying farming because of loan commitments. According to the data, 53 percent are farming, but they are struggling to pay back their loans.

Include me in the 53 percent. I am doing everything that I can to pay off the loan, and my payment schedule is very aggressive given my income. But what are we, as a country, doing about the student debt crisis or the looming farmer shortage?

I had the good fortune to step into an established business, but many new farmers aren’t so lucky, and their student debt becomes an insurmountable barrier. To protect the future of food and farming, Congress must take action.

The Young Farmer Success Act, House Bill 2590, introduced last year, would add farmers to the list of professions covered by the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which gives incentives to enter high-need, public service professions by creating a pathway to student loan forgiveness. After 10 years of farming and making monthly loan payments, farmers would be eligible to have the balance of their loans forgiven.

This program is available to teachers, nurses and government employees, among others. Is feeding our country not an equally important calling?

Yes, I’m a newbie to agriculture. But there is value in fresh perspectives and in having a college-educated agricultural workforce. I have witnessed the next generation of farmers driving innovation in water efficiency, improved crop production, and nontoxic disease and pest control. I see sustainable farming as a viable way to feed our world, and I appreciate that farmers have to make a dollar doing it.

Socrates remarked, “No one is qualified to become a statesman who is entirely ignorant of the difficulties of wheat.” While the world has changed tremendously over the last 2,500 years, food remains essential, and elected officials must address the farmer shortage and deal with the student debt crisis.

California’s senators and representatives should stand behind young farmers by adding farming to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

If we don’t have farmers to fight for agricultural water, it’s really not going to matter if it all goes to the fish. We will save the fish and grow food for the world at the same time. Those of us in the fight are doing just that.

Rory P. Crowley is the assistant operations manager for an almond and walnut grower in Chico. Contact him at rory@nicnut.com. Follow him on Twitter @r_p_c86.

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