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Our Ancient Farmers

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The average age of an American farmer is 58 years old. You might say, “who cares.” After all, nothing drives the LGM readership like rural America. But you do actually need farmers since people, you know, need to eat. Any profession with the average of 58 is in big trouble, perhaps with the exception of Supreme Court justice and that’s awfully arguable these days. Now, I find back to the land movements kind of odd because their promoters see them as political decisions when really they are deeply anti-political. My own view is that, like the late 60s and early 70s, young people have turned to food, DIY, and other hyper-local and largely rural issues because the big issues of the day seem so hard and impossible to deal with. If we can’t do anything meaningful about Vietnam climate change, at least I can control what I put into my body and get in touch with the land. There’s nothing really wrong with this and I suppose it’s an understandable response although not one I would take.

That said, we need farmers. Farming is not a real profitable profession. It takes a lot of capital. If you are going to do it, you need some financial stability up front. But what young people have that in an era of student debt and financial stagnation? So some people are trying to do something about it.

Starting a farm is hard for anyone, but Goodwin has an extra burden to bear: $9,000 in student loan debt. And although he works for both farms, Goodwin’s financial prospects are bleak. The average U.S. farm brought in only $43,750 in net income in 2012 (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture), an amount usually divided between operators.

When it comes to his own farm’s income, Goodwin is often torn between buying what he needs to expand his operation or spending that money to pay back his student loans.

Stories like Goodwin’s have become a rallying cry for the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), an advocacy group representing farmers in the first 10 years of their professional careers.

“Farmers are stewarding our environment, producing food we eat, and they are the anchor of rural communities,” says Eric Hansen, policy analyst at NYFC. “A really important public benefit is being provided by these farmers.”

With the help of the NYFC, Representatives Chris Gibson (R-New York) and Joe Courtney (D-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.

Good idea. We’ll see if anything comes of it.

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