SALEM, Ohio — Student loans are on the minds of most college graduates, but for farmers, it can be what keeps you from reaching your goals.
That is exactly what Emily Best, 31, said she feels like when it comes to long-term goals and managing the student loan debt she racked up while completing her graduate degree.
A proposal, The Young Farmer Success Act of 2015, introduced in Congress by Reps. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., and Joe Courtney, D-Conn., would expand the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program to farmers.
Best, originally of Butler, Pennsylvania, said she was lucky and didn’t accumulate debt while completing her undergraduate degree. But then the Great Recession in 2008 hit and she decided the best thing for her to do was to go back to college and get her graduate degree. That’s where she accumulated over $70,000 in student loans.
“What they didn’t tell us is that it doesn’t solve your job problem,” said Best.
She obtained her master’s degree in environmental policy from the American University in Washington D.C.
After graduation, Best joined the Peace Corps to get agricultural work experience and let the economy settle. She stayed for one year and then found a job with New Morning Farm in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. New Morning Farm is an organic vegetable farm with over 40 different crops that are selling mostly in D.C. at farmers markets, wholesaling and at a co-op.
Best said she thought she would stay one season, gain experience and move on. However, after one season, she decided she liked the work a lot and decided to stay.
Now, Best manages the farm’s greenhouse and grows some of the crops, handles social media and communications as well as managing the farm market on Sundays.
As far as her degree, Best said she is still getting to use it by speaking at conferences in the winter about agriculture and environmental issues and sharing her opinions gathered from her hands-on work experience.
Hoping bill will move
Best said if the proposal would become part of the program, it would help her greatly.
The proposal says a person graduating wouldn’t have to own their own farm, but would have to be working full-time as farmer, which is what she is doing.
“To know there is an end to the loans, would be such a relief,” said Best.
She added she feels stalled in her life because it almost feels impossible to consider purchasing a home or farm with the debt looming over head.
Like many farmers, she wonders when the money will match up to the feelings of satisfaction she gets at the end of the day.
“It’s a shame there is no value to so many important professions today,” said Best.
The National Young Farmers Coalition contends that data shows student loans are one of the biggest hurdles young farmers are facing when they graduate college and are beginning to farm.
Under the proposal, farmers would be added to the program that currently offers forgiveness to certain teachers, law enforcement officers and other public service professionals. The National Young Farmers Coalition contends that farming is public service because it means providing food for people, and should qualify for the program.
According to the Department of Education, the current Loan Forgiveness program allows borrowers to qualify for forgiveness of the remaining balance of their federal Direct Loans after they have made 120 qualifying payments on those loans while employed full time by certain public service employers.
The bill, introduced in June, applies to any type of farmer earning gross revenue of at least $35,000 per year from farm products. The purpose of the limitation is to make sure individuals who are not farming as a full-time vocation are not included.
A survey completed by the National Young Farmers Coalition found, of the 700 people surveyed, the average responder had $35,000 in student loans.
The study also found that 53 percent of the respondents are currently farming, but struggle to make their student loan payments on a farm income. Nearly 30 percent of those who responded said they didn’t pursue farming or are waiting to pursue farming because of their student loan payments.
“Student loans are one of the biggest barriers to keep farmers from succeeding and if this proposal would be approved, it would give them opportunities,” said Chelsea Simpson, The National Young Farmers Coalition communications director.
The Young Farmers Coalition is also pushing for the proposal to be passed because of the aging farming population. The number of farmers over 65 outnumbers farmers under 35 by a margin of six to one.
No instant fix
The coalition emphasized the program is not an instant way out of student loans.
Farmers would need to pay on their loans for 10 years, at least on an income-based amount, and would have to show an annual income of $35,000 from farming.
The group also contends the program would benefit those wanting to operate their own farm.
“This is for folks who really need the help,” said Simpson.
See the chart below for some scenarios:
|Scenario||Direct into profitable farming||Higher earner following start-up||Low earner following start-up|
|Total beginning debt||$35,000||$35,000||$35,000|
|Training and start-up length||0 Years||4 Years||5 Years|
|Training and start-up annual earnings||N/A||$20,000||$20,000|
|Salary following training and start-up||$60,000||$60,000||$30,000|
|Total paid by borrower over 10 years||$42,355||$29,300||$9,973|
|Total forgiven under PSLF Program||$0||$21,551||$44,109|
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