Some of the advocates working to reform our nation's food system and save our environmental resources have a habit of painting farmers as corporate polluters, guilty unless they can prove otherwise. Liz Carlisle's July 9 opinion piece, "Is farming a public service?", reaches into this territory. In it, she objects to legislation that calls for student loan forgiveness for young farmers. Instead she wants to see incentives for sustainable farming.
Sustainable practices are essential to the future of our food system, but their success relies on one factor that is too often left out of the conversation: You can't have sustainable farming without farmers.
American agriculture is facing a crisis of human capital: Farmers over the age of 65 outnumber farmers under 35 by a margin of 6-to-1. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of farmers dropped by a staggering 95,000. Without a new generation to fill the shoes of our aging farmers, hundreds of millions of acres will soon be up for grabs, and who steps up to manage that land will determine the future of the food system. Right now we are on course for fewer farm operations and more consolidation, development and fallow land.
The organization that I co-founded in 2010, the National Young Farmers Coalition, is a network of 28 local chapters and 65,000 farmer and consumer supporters. We represent a generation of young farmers who are taking incredible financial risks to achieve their farm dreams. Conservation principles and a passion for having their hands in the soil motivate them. They want to farm in ways that would improve our food system -- if only they could afford to.
Farming is capital-intensive, in large part because of the rising cost of land. Young farmers also face a financial barrier that is new to their generation: student loans. In a survey of 700 young farmers conducted by the coalition, the average student loan debt was $35,000 and 20% of respondents reported being unable to obtain capital for their farm business because of their college debt. There are many challenges facing beginning farmers, but student debt is one that keeps many from even getting started.
Under the program, farmers would have to make income-adjusted payments on their loans for 10 years before receiving any loan forgiveness. Farmers making large profits would pay off all or most of their loans in that time, which means the program would only benefit those in real need. The program would cover full-time farmers, working on farms grossing more than $35,000 annually.
Existing U.S. Department of Agriculture programs are not enough to stop the decline of America's farm population. Crop insurance is out of reach to many young or would-be farmers. The agency's best efforts -- including affordable credit options, grant funding for local training programs, and cost sharing on conservation projects -- are helpful, but do not fully address the underlying economic and structural hurdles of building a farm.
If we want to reform our food system and secure food for the future, we need to listen to those who will be most closely tied to it over the next 50 years: young farmers. Let's treat them as the public servants they are, and stand behind their potential to lift the nation.