In July, Longmont resident and farm manager Meri Lillia Mullins testified before the House Subcommittee on Rural Development, Agriculture, Trade, and Entrepreneurship in Washington, D.C. about the financial dilemmas she faces today as a young farmer:
“I have a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Environmental Engineering from the University of Toledo … Following college, I decided to put my background in science and technical skills to use towards a meaningful and challenging farming career … Farm labor jobs paid much less than minimum wage. In many cases, they offered an exchange for housing or food, but even with these benefits, they were still paying under minimum wage with stipends of around $400 per month. Without housing provided, the wages offered were $12 per hour without health insurance, but in Boulder County, the average housing is a minimum of $1,000 a month. I simply couldn’t afford to learn how to farm and cover my living expenses, while paying down my student debt.”
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Over 700,000 Coloradans are paying off student loans, and the state’s next generation of farmers isn’t immune from this economic pinch. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), farmers who are just starting out are more likely than established farmers to have at least a four-year college degree (34.3 percent compared to 23.5 percent, respectively). Plus, there are the additional financial burdens: Non-generational farmers have limited access to land—something rising agricultural land prices don’t help—and established farmers often don’t have the funds to hire workers looking for agricultural experience.
Farmers will be the first to tell you it’s not a lucrative trade, and non-generational and young farmers just getting started are hardly the only ones feeling a financial strain. Per USDA figures, government subsidies to Colorado farms increased by 20 percent between 2012 and 2017, and the Denver Post recently reported Colorado’s net farm income dropped from $1.8 billion (a record high) in 2011 to just $900 million in 2017. However, the unique challenges faced by “new and beginning producers,” a demographic defined by the USDA as farmers with 10 years of experience or less, exacerbates these financial hardships, especially as fewer young, generational farmers are taking up their parents’ and grandparents’ work.
For Margaret Paradise and her husband Scott Hauck, both 28-year-olds from non-generational farming families, that meant using college internship opportunities to work on farms, and moving—a lot. “We moved every year trying to get experience on other peoples’ land before getting our own land, and we did that for five years straight,” says Paradise. One of those plots she worked on was owned by a landlord who agreed to pay down her student debt in exchange for labor, a unique arrangement she says was a “game-changer” for her financially.
The couple had considered buying land on the Front Range, but cost pushed them to the southwest corner of the state, where they purchased more than 300 acres in Montezuma County that they named Sacred Song Farm. Paradise is a unique agricultural success story—her and her husband’s grass-fed cattle, pork, and lamb has been a hit thanks to the farm’s CSA program and the state’s booming farm-to-table movement—but it hasn’t come without sacrifice. “We’re in our sixth year and we’re not spending down our savings anymore,” she says, “But it has been more challenging and difficult than not.”
So, what’s being done to make it easier—and more affordable—for young people to make a career in farming? Here in Colorado, the Agricultural Workforce Development Program, which passed through the state legislature in 2018 and took effect at the end of last year, incentivizes farms and ranches to take on interns by reimbursing them up to 50 percent of the cost to hire help through state-funded payments.
“Our parents didn’t farm, so we don’t have that base of knowledge in our family, and we’re entering into this field that we’re interested in,” says first-generational farmer Krisan Christiansen, a founder of the National Young Farmers Coalition’s Flatirons Chapter, who tends to an acre in Boulder County called the Farm N’ Wild Wellspring. “This bill allows farmers to actually pay interns a living wage and encourages people to get more of an educational base and farming experience.”
But this program is just a start. The National Young Farmers Coalition—a nonprofit with chapters all over the country that advocates for policy change, business services, and networking for young farmers—points to more economic progress for beginning farmers in the Midwest, such as in Minnesota, where the the Minnesota Beginning Farmer Tax Credit was signed into law in 2017. The legislation offers three brackets of tax breaks to agricultural land owners who either rent or sell their parcels to beginning farmers—meaning that older farmers can qualify for extra cash as opposed to subdividing and selling their plots when they’re ready to retire.
While Colorado hasn’t pursued similar tax credits yet, there’s progress being made in Washington, D.C. with ramifications for the Centennial State. Mullins’ testimony to Congress about her experience as a new farmer with student loans in Boulder County was part of the ongoing debate around two separate bills moving through the House and the Senate: H.R. 1060 and S. 2168. These bills are slightly different, but would effectively do the same thing: Add farm-related employment to the definition of “public service job,” making it feasible for new and beginning farmers with student loans to access the national loan forgiveness program. (As of press time, neither Sen. Michael Bennet or Sen. Cory Gardner indicated whether they support either bill, and neither replied to our requests for comment.)
Just this month, Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia and chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, introduced H.R. 4674, a bill that would add farmers and ranchers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. That comes on the heels of another push in the U.S. House to add farmers and ranchers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness via the Young Farmers Success Act (H.R. 3232), which was introduced over the summer.
But all this comes with a glaring caveat; namely, that the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which promises to wipe away student loan debt after 10 years of applicable public service, has been scrutinized for how few applicants actually end up receiving benefits. Just last fall, NPR cited that the program only accepted 289 applicants out of 29,000 that were processed. The Trump administration has since come under fire for directing the Department of Education to block the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s investigation into the program’s shortcomings.
Despite this data, advocacy groups are optimistic that the country’s crop of new and beginning producers are starting to get the attention they deserve. Especially in Colorado, where locally grown food—and the farmers who grow it—tends to be the star of the plate.
Editor’s note: This is the second installation in a series of three articles on young farmers in Colorado. Read the first piece, on Colorado’s next generation of farmers, here.