Like country doctors and inner-city teachers, small family farmers do a public service. They toil the good earth for food and fiber.
The problem is doing this for a living just isn’t that glamorous for a lot of young people. While the number of farms in America steadily dwindled, the average age of die-hard farmers has risen to a ripe 58, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.
To beckon the younger generation home to family farms, U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) is offering a bill that would make farmers eligible for student loan debt forgiveness. The Young Farmer’s Success Act of 2015 would help aspiring farmers pool capital to buy the land, machines and stock to get started. It’s a real feel-good attempt to fix youth apathy toward rural labor.
Though the bill limits eligible farmers to those making at least $35,000 a year (to deter the hobbyists), it doesn’t have a maximum revenue cap. That means corporate farms could have the public cover their young employees’ student loans as well.
John Mesko of the Sustainable Farming Association points out that when it comes to troubling trends in American agriculture, the rising age of the average farmer is a red herring to bigger problems.
“Regardless of the chosen career path of a young person, student loan debt is an issue. We need more farmers, absolutely. But the real question is what kind of a culture, what kind of a society do we wanna have?”
Subsidies that incentivize a certain age rather than sustainable practices are kind of missing the point, he says.
The consolidation of small farms, loss of human labor and focus on harvesting a limited variety of crops like corn and wheat has led to a corporate takeover of agrarian America. These behemoth operations are stifling the biodiversity in the landscape, and their fertilizer runoff is punching dead zones in natural waters.
“We have a huge unmet demand for organic food and milk and grain crops,” Mesko says. “Certainly, there’s a lot of potential for new and beginning farmers to continue to grow in number. We need to think about the size of farms, the location of farms and what legislation will make that vision develop over time.”
Send news tips to Susan Du.