A bill recently introduced in Congress, the Young Farmer Success Act, would make farmers eligible for federally subsidized student loan forgiveness — just as teachers and nurses are now — on the grounds that agriculture is a public service. But is it?
Certainly the history of U.S. farm policy would suggest that lawmakers have long seen agriculture as a public good. Why else would they pass a farm bill that, in its most recent iteration, commits $134 billion to farm subsidies, commodity programs and insurance? Why would California so assiduously defend agricultural water rights in the midst of a severe drought?
Arguably agriculture is more than a good; it’s a necessity, because everyone eats. But given that most U.S. crops will become fuel, animal feed, processed food components, export commodities or waste, the reality is a bit more complicated.
The truth is that agriculture is a hybrid public-private activity, and when it comes to evaluating the costs and benefits of its public fraction, not all farming is created equal.
The dominant approach to farming in the U.S. — the one encouraged by the last 150 years of agricultural policy — focuses on maximizing the immediate private benefit to the farmer, measured in yield of cash crops. Public benefits of commodity farming, its supporters argue, include open space, the preservation of rural life and the American agrarian tradition, and — the boon most touted by the architects of 20th century farm policy — an advantage in the balance of foreign trade.
However, some of these benefits have proved hollow. Commodity farming has led to larger and larger farms, which have meant smaller and smaller rural communities, and the flood of grain has continually driven down prices.
Simultaneously, commodity farming has led to a number of public “bads,” from dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico (caused by nitrogen fertilizer runoff) to toxic manure lagoons and poor air quality (due to confinement animal feeding operations). Plus, if you follow these commodity crops all the way to their eventual consumption by the public, an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. When you consider all its externalized costs, cheap food is not so cheap.
In response to widespread concern about these negative effects, the Reagan-era Department of Agriculture developed a parallel but less influential policy approach to farming, one that aims to maximize not private gain but environmental good such as wildlife habitat and watershed protection. This alternative strategy encourages nonproduction, as epitomized by the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to leave land fallow.
What has only recently come to the attention of policymakers, however, is that the soundest long-term approach to farming and conservation comes from understanding them not as opposing objectives but as two goals grounded in the same foundation.
Farmers, in other words, don’t have to stop planting crops to help the environment. Farms are sutured into living ecosystems, and their production is reliant on the health of those ecosystems. It is entirely possible for farmers to raise nutritious food and also protect water quality, invest in soil fertility and actively promote a diverse community of pollinators, beneficial insects and plant species.
So back to the question: Is farming a public service? Well, it depends, and not on the age of the farmer. Although there’s a feel-good quality to supporting young farmers — and young farmers are proportionally more likely to manage their lands organically — age does not map neatly onto farming practices. More fundamentally, paying young farmers’ college loans does nothing to change the incentive structure of U.S. agriculture to truly support them in farming for the long-term common good.
Instead of loan forgiveness, why not subsidize land access for farmers who commit to water conservation practices, cover cropping, crop rotation and avoidance of toxic chemicals? Why not expand the program that directly funds young people to participate in public service — AmeriCorps — including the portion that focuses on the food system, FoodCorps?
It’s a missed opportunity to encourage young people to work on a farm, any farm, as if they were all equally beneficial to the American public. It makes far more sense to incentivize specific practices.
Liz Carlisle is a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems at UC Berkeley and the author of “Lentil Underground.”