Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Congress may forgive young farmers' student loans

In an attempt to interest more young people in taking up farming, "Congress is considering a bill that would add farmers to the list of occupations that qualify for a federal program that forgives student loans for public service workers, such as teachers and police officers," Jen Fifield reports for Stateline. The average age of U.S. farmers is 58, up from 51 in 1982, and "the number of farmers who had been operating their farm for less than five years fell 23 percent from 2007 to 2012, to 171,550." That could spell trouble for an industry that "provided nearly one of every 10 jobs in the U.S. in 2014. And every dollar in farm exports in 2014 stimulated another $1.27 in business activity." (USDA graphic)

Student loan debt is especially tough for farmers, many of whom don't make enough money farming to make ends meet, Fifield writes. "The average farm income in 2012 was $2,229 for beginners and $26,217 for established farmers, while off-farm income—which can include a spouse’s job, interest and dividends—was $111,130 for beginners and $82,104 for established farmers." At the same time costs are rising, with agricultural land increasing from $2,300 to $3,020 per acre from 2011 to 2015, and the "average cost of a 95-horsepower tractor increased from $62,000 in 2005 to $107,970 in 2015."

New York started a small student-loan forgiveness program for farmers last year and the Wisconsin Legislature is considering doing the same, Fifield writes. The programs have their limits. Eric Hansen, policy analyst at the National Young Farmers Coalition, said farmers have a harder time making monthly loan payments, mainly because many "get paid once a year, at the end of the harvest season. And they have to spend money before they make it, which makes access to credit vital." A NYFC survey of new or aspiring farmers "found that those with student loan debt owed on average $35,000. Of those, 28 percent said that because of their debt, they didn’t pursue farming or are waiting to start. Many also said they couldn’t get credit because of their loans."

"And although forgiving student loans may help some starting farmers, it won’t reach the bulk of them," Fifield writes. "Spending for the New York program was capped at $100,000 last year and $150,000 this year, and the Wisconsin bill would cap spending at $60,000 in the first year, gradually increasing to $300,000 by 2020.To be eligible for the New York program, a farmer must have graduated in the last two years. In Wisconsin, the proposal is five years. Yet half the new farmers who responded to the NYFC survey said it took five years or longer to get started. Nearly half of new farmers are older than 35." (Read more)

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