Student loan burden is at the top of the list of challenges young farmers face.
Expanding funding for conservation easements on farmland will be required to give new farmers continuing access to agricultural land.
Funding for grants to organizations that promote local food access are as critical as grants going directly to farmers.
Farmers are on the front lines of climate change and want to be leaders in addressing it but need support to transition their ag practices to do so.
A Conversation with Sophie Ackoff of the National Young Farmers Coalition
Contributor: Lisa Held
Sophie Ackoff, co-executive director of NYFC, discusses the initiatives the organization is engaged in on a national and state level to support the next generation of farmers.
What are the major federal policy initiatives the National Young Farmers Coalition is engaged with?
We just, once again, introduced our bill to add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. This is the third Congress that we've introduced it into, but it's bipartisan, and it would address the barrier of student loan debt, which is one of the top barriers. As Congress is looking at reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, there's a lot of opportunity there to add farmers to an existing loan forgiveness program for public service career individuals. We just introduced it in the House and are working on introducing it into the Senate.
[HRF Update: An October 2019 NYFC press release states: "Unfortunately, language from the Student Loan Forgiveness for Farmers and Ranchers Act (S. 2168) introduced on July 18, 2019 by Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) to create the Agricultural Student Loan Forgiveness Program, was not included in the Senate legislation. This program would have been the first and largest effort to date to recognize farmers and ranchers as public servants and address the student loan debt barrier.]
What would be the conditions for loan forgiveness for farmers?
The mechanism requires ten years of income-based payments, and then the rest of the loans are forgiven. It’s a great system because it ensures commitment to the industry, but also if for some reason somebody is making a lot of money in farming, in those ten years they will have paid off their student loan payment. So it's pretty well targeted to people who are farming that are struggling to pay off their loans. And there's also a minimum of needing to make $35,000 in farm sales so that we're not forgiving the loans of hobby farmers or very, very part-time farmers.
Over the past few years that you've done the farmer survey, student loan debt has been at the top of the list when it comes to what young farmers are reporting to be a barrier.
Yes. And we did a specific survey about student loans back in 2015 when we launched this campaign, and the average debt burden was $35,000, which, if they're going into another career can be somewhat manageable. But in agriculture it either makes it so that people just can't even choose to go into farming because it's very difficult to make those monthly payments in the first years. And then even if they are able to start their own farm, it can be super difficult to get credit to grow the business, because farming is risky and capital intensive and already difficult to get credit for. And so with this burden they have from graduating, it makes it really difficult to grow the farm business with increased investment. What we ended up seeing is a lot of farmers who are working full-time off farm to have stable income to pay their monthly loan payments and who are doing their best to have operations on the nights and weekends. That's where their passion is.
They're really reticent to quit, but they are really stagnated at that place where they can't grow the business to then support themselves and their families in farming because their energy and time is so focused off farm. And that intersects with land access very strongly, because it's very difficult to purchase farmland, and student loans are another barrier where young farmers really feel like they can't afford farmland. And so they're in these lease arrangements that are often one, two, five-year leases, which are very precarious. And then in a similar vein, the farmers are reticent to put a lot of investment in that land, because they might have to leave at any moment or at the end of the year. And so they're using pretty scrappy infrastructure, like wash pack stations and, and driving to get cold storage or not necessarily wanting to put in as much investment in their soil health since they aren't necessarily going to reap the benefits of what they're putting into it.
Is there specific legislation that you're working on at the federal level on land access?
We had some awesome wins in the Farm Bill; some of them are wins and some of them are sort of ongoing wins because they don't necessarily have funding. So we have to keep working on it during the appropriations process. This year is a big appropriations year because the Farm Bill passed a lot of new programs that need funding. So now it is making sure that they receive that funding; right now it's for fiscal year 2020.
One thing that we won was more funding for farmland conservation, which is very helpful in terms of land access because when farmland is conserved, it is much more likely to be affordable to a working farmer because it's no longer in the same bracket as developable land. So that was a big win. Then in the Farm Bill we had language in there to do a land access report. So really looking at who owns our nation's farmland and just getting a lot more data so we can plan for the next Farm Bill, having programs that are really directed at making sure this land transitions from this generation to the next. The creation of that data report is in the Farm Bill but not funded. So we're working on the appropriations process to make sure that's funded.
What about the local food programs that were in the Farm Bill that a lot of young farmers use, like the value-added producer grants program and the farmers market promotion programs?
Yes. That was a good win in the Farm Bill. So LAMP [the Local Agriculture Market Program] was created, which is bringing together those programs, and because they were put together, the program has now reached mandatory funding, so it's at $50 million a year. That means the programs will continue and receive more funding. The best part is that in the next Farm Bill cycle, we're not going to have to be starting from zero again to make sure we get funding for these programs, but we can work on expanding them and making them better.
And that's the same for the combination of the beginning farmer-training program and 2501. They were separate and neither had reached mandatory funding on its own, and so by bringing them together under the program called FOTO [Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach], they have reached mandatory funding of $50 million. It's not immediate, it sort of works its way up over the next five years, but by the next Farm Bill, it'll be mandatory funding. So we won't have to start from zero there either. And also if there isn't a Farm Bill and the current Farm Bill expires, those programs continue. They're not eliminated temporarily. That's really important too because there's always risk of extensions instead of a new Farm Bill.
Do all of these programs have an impact? Do you hear from young farmers that they’re taking advantage of those programs?
Yes, absolutely. It's amazing how small the Beginning Farmer Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) is but what big impacts it has. It's a teeny piece of the pie of the federal Farm Bill, but it is single handedly providing federal funding for all of these really critical programs that exist at nonprofits and land grants. Many farmers are not coming from farm families and really need those programs. We have farmers go to DC as much as possible who have used those programs to just remind delegates of how useful they are. I think value added producer grants are important too. They are not as widespread since they require quite a bit of infrastructure built out and you need a match for them. But we've definitely seen dairy farms that are interested in not just selling through the cooperatives, but being able to do some processing onsite like making yogurt and cheese.
The Farmer's Market Promotion program and the Local Food Promotion program are more indirectly beneficial, because the farmers aren't in most cases applying for those themselves. But it funds programs that are very helpful on the ground. Like here in the Hudson Valley, we have our CSA coalition. That's new and it was grant-funded, and I've heard from a bunch of the farmers that are in that coalition that it's been super helpful for them to have that group doing market research—seeing what makes people want to join a CSA, what's not working. And it's also doing a lot of advertising and promotion of the CSAs of the Hudson Valley to customers. So that has pretty big impacts on the ground.
And we got a grant to do a calculator that helps farmers decide whether they should be renting or buying land. It's called finding farmland. You can find it at findingfarmland.org, and we've done workshops associated with it, but you put in all the factors, like the cost of the land and the loan options and you can even indicate if there's an easement on it. So you can see that if you were able to work with a land trust, with a conservation easement on it, would that be the thing that would make it a good financial decision to buy land? Because one of the main considerations is making sure that even if farmers do have the ability to buy land, they aren't spending more on it than they'll be able to recoup from farming the land.
And then there's another land access initiative at the federal level that we're starting to work on more, which is capital gains tax. Basically what's happening is it incentivizes landowners to not pass on their farm before they die because they're taxed 20 percent on it. There’re different farm groups working on this to find a way to exempt working farmers from the capital gains tax, which would help transition more operations to the next generation. It's really important to have that happen while the farmer is still alive and wants the farm to stay in agriculture because often when it's transitioned after death, the children are more likely to sell and subdivide and whatnot. Instead of the farmer selling it to the next generation and giving their kids the money instead of the land.
In New York are there state policies that are specifically impacting young farmers in the Hudson Valley?
We actually worked on two bills in Albany this session, one we passed and one I have to work on again next year. The one that passed was a change to an existing grant program for new farmers. That is really helpful. It's up to $50,000 just operating funds for the farmer, for infrastructure. So it's a really helpful program, but the application process is extremely complex. In addition to that, it's a matching. So the farmer has to have the funds or able to access credit for the rest of the funds. And it's a reimbursement program. So basically the farmer needs to be able to do like a hundred thousand dollar project, and then get paid back later. And often they don't necessarily get notified in a timely enough manner...they have to do the project and hope that it works out.
So we made basically an additional tier of the program that lets farmers apply for $5,000. So just a much lower number, easier application process, through like a payment upfront instead of reimbursed, with no match. Basically it's catering to farmers at different places in their career. You know, the farmers who are getting the new farmer grant program are very much in the seven to 10 year range, since they're the ones who are able to do that kind of large-scale project. But we're hoping that this grant program can also support farmers who are in their first couple of years, where that $5,000 would go a long way.
And then we also have the student loan forgiveness program in New York State.
It's the only active one in the country. And currently you have to graduate and begin managing or owning your operation within two years, which is a quick timeline. My partner worked on other farms for seven years before he felt like it was time to start his own farm. Basically what's happening is the people who can get that loan forgiveness probably are from multi-generation farm families so they can easily come back to the farm and be managing part of it within a couple of years. We had a bill that would just reframe the qualifications for that program to be a young farmer in their first 10 years of farming. And the way that loan forgiveness happens is it's $10,000 each year for five years. So up to $50,000 that's forgiven. And then you have to commit to staying farming in New York for something like five to 10 years. So that didn't pass. It didn't come up for a vote but we'll work on it again next year.
Why are you targeting New York for this state-level student loan forgiveness?
On the state level, our strategy has been to move the needle but to work on things that are achievable. And so it looks different in each state. In Colorado, we started with an ag workforce development bill because we just wanted to create more of a big tent campaign and student loans can be a little bit more divisive. Although actually, I've been really impressed by how many local and county farm bureaus have been supportive of doing loan forgiveness. It's exciting.
But the ag workforce is funds for farmers to host apprentices for a six month on-farm apprenticeship and they can apply for cost sharing to pay those apprentices, which is great for the farmers who need labor since labor's so expensive, and it's also really helpful for the apprentices, for people looking for a farm job, to make sure that they're getting a paid apprenticeship. Because it is a sector that often runs on unpaid labor. So we passed that in Colorado and we passed it in New Mexico and have run it a couple other places like Minnesota but didn't succeed in Minnesota this year.
And then in Minnesota we have an opportunity to run a tax credit bill that incentivizes landowners to rent or sell to a beginning farmer. And that program, in its first year, 450 farms were granted tax credits, and I think it was like over $2 million in tax credits. Super successful. We're working to bring that to other states because that seems like a really positive solution to the land access challenge and generational transfer challenge. And we actually just passed it in Pennsylvania as well last week.
Is something policy-wise that you've seen in terms of land access that is really working. Do you think the tax credit structure would be the biggest thing?
Yeah, it's easier to pass a tax credit than a program that the state government is going to have to put in the budget, like have dollars to grant the farmers, but it has clear financial benefits for people. So that's a goal for New York for the next couple of years. Next year would be ideal, but we'll see how that shakes out.
You're working with farmers all around the country. How do the challenges for young farmers in the Hudson Valley compare to challenges farmers face in other parts of the country? Are there things that are harder here? Things that are easier?
Yes, definitely. Land costs are higher, not higher than California, but up there in the most expensive places to farm because of the proximity to New York City and this wave of people coming up from the city and buying second homes. Real estate is really driving up farmland prices. What we're seeing is a lot of those landowners like the idea of agriculture and are renting, but the ownership is in the hands of the non-farmer. So that is a big challenge.
On the other hand, the opportunity is certainly having the largest market for food in the country. It's so close, just two hours away. If you can get into a greenmarket, you can often make a lot more money than you can at upstate farmer's markets.
We're seeing much more interest in doing wholesale. There is a lot of interest in being able to sell to schools and institutions, but it's difficult for young farmers because of scale and the price point. But we're definitely seeing some young farmers selling to wholesale accounts like restaurant groups and the Sweetgreens and Dig Ins of the world. There’s definitely interest in more support in terms of making sure that the food safety plan is set up for that and the insurance. It adds another layer of complexity to your sale. A lot of farmers would be able to scale up to that level but then it comes back to the land challenge; finding additional acreage can be super difficult. So a lot of farmers are doing the CSA thing because that's what their acreage allows for.
Anything else on policy you wanted to mention?
We're trying to figure out what our federal policy strategy should be on climate change. We're working at the state level on a soil health bill in Colorado for next year, which is a way to address climate change without alienating the traditional ag in Colorado. But I could see a lot of potential for us to be doing more soil health and climate work at the state and federal level. Our young farmers are calling for us to take a bolder stance. They’re really on the front lines of it. Our farmers are experiencing climate change and confronting its costs before the consumer even really knows about it. So I would say it's an emerging priority for us.