Rural youth borrow money, build dreams


SALEM, Ohio – While most youngsters don’t even buy their own bikes, 12-year-old Mark Riley already owns his own small herd of Ayrshires.

Although the boy is years away from driving a car or going to high school, he has his future mapped out.

He wants to buy a dairy farm, he says, pointing to a silo poking out from the trees next to his parent’s operation in Ashtabula County. And with his skill showing cattle, he’d like to do more clipping and grooming, perhaps even developing a fitting business.

Mark’s brother, Lucas, is on the same track. He always wanted a little brown cow; now he owns three.

Lucas is just 10, but he already knows he wants to have a Jersey farm someday.

These aren’t just pie-in-the-sky dreams of what boys want to be “when they grow up.” The Riley brothers are serious and, thanks to a rural youth loan program, their aspirations are becoming a reality sooner than planned.

Loans and cows. Two years ago, Mark Riley used his first $5,000 USDA Farm Service Agency youth loan to buy four Holsteins. Using profits from the cows’ milk, he hurried to pay off the loan so he could get another one. With his second loan, he bought four Ayrshires.

Now Mark and his brother are both using milk profits and county fair winnings to pay off their loans – as soon as possible, they hope – so they can continue building their herds.

Come what may. Although parents Ron and Wendy Riley can’t help but be proud of their sons’ tentative decisions to dairy farm, they realize their children are still young for such big decisions.

“If they don’t want to farm, at least they can sell their cows and they’ll have money to pursue something else,” Wendy said.

Growing up on their parent’s 90-head dairy, Mark and Lucas see the ups and downs of dairy farming through their parents’ eyes. The loan program lets them experience it on their own.

“Bookkeeping is a bigger part of the business than milking. They’re learning the finances – how they can make and lose money with cows,” Ron said.

“They’re learning early that it’s a rough road.”

Borrowers. Mark and Lucas represent typical borrowers’ projects in northeast Ohio, said Teresa Goode, farm loan officer with Farm Service Agency in Portage County.

Most young borrowers’ parents have a farm and the children want to start building their own dairy herds, she said.

Goode agrees with Ron and Wendy Riley that the loans teach young borrowers bookkeeping, but she also emphasizes that the youth learn how to make a small-scale business lucrative.

With up to $5,000 in a loan, the child’s project must be profitable to pay off the borrowed money.

“There’s a debt there,” she said. “They’ve signed. They’re responsible.”

Goode realizes that since they’re children, their parents can bail them out of financial hardships, but she hopes parents let their children learn to overcome these difficulties on their own.

Repeating theme. Responsibility is the word that keeps popping up when talking about youth loans – from parents, from the children, from Farm Service Agency.

At 21, Betty Beckwith of Ashtabula County looks back on her experience with a youth loan and brings up “responsibility” again.

As a freshman in high school, Beckwith already had five of her own bred Brown Swiss, which she purchased with a loan. “How many other 16-year-olds can say they own their own cows?” she boasted.

Calving and milking took on a whole new light – a much more serious light – when the animals were her responsibility.

Just three months after buying her first five cows, one of them had twins, resulting in complications for the mother. With the death of a cow so soon after purchasing it, Beckwith quickly learned there are no guarantees in farming.

Turning point. Although Beckwith’s herd grew through the years to the point where she could have started her own small dairy, that wasn’t in her plans. Instead, when her family sold its dairy cows last July, she also sold hers and used the money toward college.

In fact, she said the loan helped her realize that although she loves animals, she didn’t want to be tied down with dairy cattle 365 days a year.

Another youth loan borrower bought her cattle as his project, she said.

Open to ideas. Although most of the loans Goode oversees are for dairy cattle, they aren’t limited to cows.

“It’s not strictly agriculture. It’s anything where they can show a profit,” she said, mentioning a lawn service or photography business as other examples.

Another idea is for a 4-H’er to use the loan to buy feed and supplies to show a steer at the fair. The money from selling the animal can then help pay off the loan.

The main guideline is that the borrower be a member of a group, such as 4-H or FFA, where an adviser provides guidance. For Farm Service Agency project approval, parents must also give their OK, Goode said.

Support. With such an undertaking for a child or teen, it’s important to have the moral support and guidance from adults, Goode said.

Ron and Wendy Riley set the example.

Although they try to minimize their sons’ losses by not charging them expenses, such as feed, the couple say it’s up to their sons to raise the money and pay off the loans.

“Otherwise how will they learn?” they ask.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at


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