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Legislation aims to bolster young farmers with debt forgiveness

Aspiring farmers crippled with student loans may have their debt forgiven under legislation introduced in the House of Representatives last week.

The Young Farmers Success Act would add full-time farmers and ranchers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Under that program, which was established in 2007, teachers, nurses, doctors, public interest attorneys, government and nonprofit employees are eligible for student-loan forgiveness after making 10 years of income-based loan payments.

The legislation seeks to address the shortfall of skilled young farmers entering the industry. According to the National Young Farmers Coalition, the average age of a farmer in the United States is 58. Despite a 20% decline in new farmers between 2007 and 2012, the organization noted an uptick in farmers under 35 in a 2012 farmers census.

“These young farmers are entrepreneurial and tough, but they are finding that talent and hard work alone may not equate to farm success, the report states. “There are many structural barriers standing in their way.”

Farmer Lily Dougherty-Johnson of Greenport said Monday that while she hasn’t had a chance to read over the full bill, she generally supports the idea.

Student loans are a barrier she can relate to.

“When I first thought about farming, it didn’t seem like a profession I could enter into because I didn’t come from a farming family or have land,” she said. “It seemed impossible.”

Ms. Dougherty-Johnson said the program could help sustain an aging farm workforce.

“It wouldn’t solve all the problems, but would be one less thing for [young people] to worry about,” she said.

A 2017 survey by NYFC found that student loans are the second most significant challenge facing young farmers in New York, after land access.

“Farming is a really capital-intensive undertaking,” Sophie Ackoff, NYFC vice president of policy and campaigns said in an interview Friday. “It’s already difficult to get credit to farm and banks are seeing that existing debt and not investing in these young farmers.”

Ms. Ackoff, who has farmed on several vegetable farms in the Hudson Valley, said the bill would be the most “direct” fix for the issue. “Farmers are taking care of our nation’s land, growing good food. It should be considered a public service,” she said.

The legislation was introduced with bipartisan support, including Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley).

“Our country’s farmers are part of the backbone of our nation, and while they are critical to ensuring American families have food to put on the table, all too often the next generation of farmers is finding that a career in agriculture makes it difficult to put food on their own table,” Mr. Zeldin said in a statement.

Long Island Farm Bureau administrative director Rob Carpenter said he’d welcome any measure to promote young people entering into the business.

Mr. Carpenter noted that locally, the high price of land deters many from starting agriculture businesses.

“And if you don’t grow up on a farm and work on a farm in your youth, it becomes even more difficult to fully comprehend all of the things that are involved in being a farmer, from knowledge to growing crops to the specifics of crop protectants, organic practices and so on,” he said.

He said that recent discussions among the Farm Bureau board have sparked interest in creating more training programs for young would-be farmers. “People think it’s glamorous, not understanding the care and effort it takes to work those long, hard hours,” he said.

New York State already offers a student loan forgiveness program for farmers. Under that program, young farmers can qualify for $10,000 off of their loans per year for five years if they start or begin managing a farm within two years of graduation, according to Ms. Ackoff.

“The main beneficiaries of this program are multi-generational farm owners,” she said.

A new bill in the state legislature could tweak the program to include new farmers within their first few years of farming.

In addition, several programs on the North Fork are designed to help up-and-coming farmers, including the Peconic Land Trust Farms for the Future initiative, which leases land and teaches sustainability to both novice and experienced farmers.

The legislation is co-sponsored by Rep. Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat, Republican Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania and Rep. Josh Harder of California, a Democrat. Mr. Courtney said in a statement that the legislation would allow young farmers a “fighting chance to build a life on the farm” with their families.

Mr. Thompson said the agriculture industry provides the country with a safe and affordable food supply, thus providing an essential public service and protecting an asset of national security.

Mr. Carpenter agreed. “Everything that we eat comes from or starts on a farm, and it should be incumbent upon all segments of government to work to encourage agriculture,” he said. “We take it for granted that there are always full shelves at the supermarket, but need to work on the sustainability aspect of keeping our farmers farming.”

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