Part Five Of Student Loan Series Focuses On Young Farmers

Dec 19, 2014

There’s a new campaign aimed at providing student loan forgiveness to young farmers. Young farmers say debt forgiveness would free them up financially to invest in their own operations, but it is not the sole financial panacea.

In the spring, these pastures will be home to 30 lambs, and toward the woods, 24 pigs, all under the farming prowess of 24-year-old Leanna Mulvihill. She’ll be running Four Legs Farm at Pine Farm in her native New Paltz. But not all the grass is green in her life.

“I have about $18,000 in debt. I went to a state school and I got a scholarship, so I got really lucky as far as the costs of college go, but I still have debt.”

Mulvihill, who graduated two years ago from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, has two loans, one with a 6.8 percent interest rate, the other 4.5 percent. Pine Farm is part of Glynwood Farm’s Hudson Valley Farm Business Incubator which, in partnership with the Open Space Institute, provides the tools and resources aspiring agricultural entrepreneurs need to develop and manage viable farm enterprises in the Hudson Valley.

“I pay Glynwood to participate in this program. I pay, I mean it’s a nominal fee, I pay $4,500 a year and that includes my housing and access to this land and a lot of mentorship and support and it’s an amazing deal. It’s unreal. It’s like fantasy dream-world farming,” says Mulvihill.  “It lowers a lot of the costs and I am so, so lucky to be here and in such a privileged situation, but I still have debt and I still am going to have a really hard time.”

Mulvihill has a side job – operations manager for the National Young Farmers Coalition, which in December launched a campaign aiming to provide student loan forgiveness to farmers. The hope is to add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which currently provides debt relief to doctors, teachers, government employees and non-profit workers. For enrollees who make 10 years of income-driven student loan payments, the balance of their federal loan debt is forgiven.

“Right now we are inspiring about 10,000 new farmers each year. It’s not keeping up with the pace of retirements,” says Gibson. “So if this is not addressed in the next decade, this is going to become a major issue for our country.”

That’s Republican Congressman Chris Gibson, who represents the 19th District, including New Paltz. He says he supports adding young farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and intends to introduce a bill in 2015.

“Our staff is working now with the Young Farmer Coalition, greatly appreciate the leadership, we’re very fortunate in our area, Lindsey Shute is one of the national leaders,” Gibson says. “She resides in the 19th Congressional District and we’re working with her on this to work the language for a bill.”

Democratic Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney also supports adding young farmers to the program.

“One of the reasons Chris Gibson and I are so excited about continuing to work on the Agriculture Committee together in a bipartisan fashion is because we want to come up with a whole agenda for young farmers, so not just student loan debt, although that’s a big part of it, but access to land, access to credit, access to training, things that really make the difference in young farmers like Maddie Morely in Cold Spring and like Leon Vehaba in Poughkeepsie and like all the other young farmers I’ve met who really want to get on the land.”

This is good news for Mulvihill, but until debt forgiveness becomes reality, she’s farming on shaky ground in an already volatile industry.

Andrew Pezzullo works at Little Seed Gardens, an organic family farm in Chatham, in Columbia County, where farmers now are indoors harvesting pea shoots.

“It’s very difficult to even conceive of a career in agriculture without some form of debt relief,” says Pezzullo.

Pezzullo wants to have his own organic farm one day.

“For me, I came to agriculture not because I wanted to make money, and I knew that I wouldn’t, and I knew that I could make more money doing other stuff, being a doctor or even being a teacher or being a pizza delivery person probably, I came to farming because I wanted to feed my community good, clean, healthy food,” Pezzullo says.

The 22-year-old graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. It’s where he discovered he wanted a life in agriculture. He left with a degree in environmental science and cultural anthropology. And he left with debt.

“I’ve got about $30,000 in student debt,” says Pezzullo.

That translates into a large monthly payment.

“I pay almost $500 a month in student debt, paying off my student debt,” says Pezzullo. “And I don’t make that much money.”

He says he earns about $12,000 a year, after taxes.

Six percent of U.S. farmers are under 35. The average age is 58. In 2010, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a challenge to bring 100,000 new farmers onto the land in five years. With 63 percent of farmland on the cusp of transition, growing a new generation of farmers is critical, but between 2007 and 2012, according to USDA statistics, the number of beginning farmers fell by 20 percent. Congressman Maloney says he finds that in the 18th District, it’s not for lack of enthusiasm.

“This is not an area where young people don’t want to do it. It’s the opposite; they’re dying to do it, but they have trouble figuring out how they can pay their student loans, how they can get the training they need in the advanced techniques, how they can finance the equipment they need,” Maloney says.

Kate Farrar is down to part-time work at Hearty Roots Community Farm in Germantown, in Columbia County, and feeling fortunate to have any farm work in the winter.

“So I’m working one full day a week at the farm doing egg washing,” Farrar says. “And then I’m doing another, several hours, I’m not sure how many a week, working on writing the CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] newsletter for next year.”

She’s an English major who graduated from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania in 2012 with more than $25,000 in student loan debt, at a 7 percent interest rate.

“I make $10 an hour and then I have, we’re given $150 a month that’s put towards our health insurance,” Farrar says.

The 24-year-old supplements her offseason income working in a cafe and freelancing for Edible Hudson Valley magazine. She will be 39 when her student loan is paid off and she, too, wants to have her own farm.

“Realistically, I don’t know how many years out that is, “I have ideas about what I want it to look like but it’s not something that is tangible yet to me because I know I have a lot of debt to pay off before I can even humor the idea.”

Caleb Pawelski differs from these young farmers in that he’s not looking to start a farm, but wondering if he could ever take over the family onion farm - Pawelski Farms in Orange County’s Black Dirt region. The high-school senior, whose 75-year-old grandfather still works the farm, says he is shying away not because of future student loan debt, but because he cannot be assured any measure of profitability.

“Every year has been either a disaster or it’s just been different policies where we can’t make any money. We’re barely getting by,” says Caleb Pawelski. “There’s some years where we’re living off of my mom’s salary as a library clerk. So I don’t want to do that and support myself in that way. I want to have a steady job.”

Here’s Caleb’s father Chris Pawelski.

“It breaks my heart. I grew up on the farm and I started work on the farm when I was 4 years old, worked through. And I went through a period where I didn’t want to do it either. I went to undergraduate and graduate school, and my degree is in, both my bachelor’s and master’s is in broadcasting and film studies, but I wanted to go back to the farm after three years being first married, and I enjoy it,” Chris Pawelski says. “But I totally can relate and understand where he is coming from. It’s been very hard for my boys to have to deal with the fact that year after year we’re on the brink of financial collapse and I don’t blame him. We want to pass the farm on to my sons and want them to continue to do it. I’m fourth generation. It would be fantastic if we could maintain to fifth generation, but I can understand where he is coming from. I don’t blame him at all.” 

Caleb says he is interested in engineering, science and math, but does not rule out a return to the farm for a career.

“You had had a quote, ‘I’m not trying to be Elmer J. Fudd and a millionaire, I just want to make a living,’” says Caleb Pawelski.

“Right, I own a mansion and a yacht.  I said that during my [U.S.] Senate testimony,” Chris Pawelski says.

“That’s all I’m looking for,” says Caleb Pawelski. “If it can become something where it can almost a stable income year in year out, I would definitely think about it, that would definitely become an option.”

Chris Pawelski, who is politically active in farm advocacy, has a message for lawmakers.

“Policymakers in [Washington] D.C. have to address the reasons why it’s become so unprofitable or barely profitable for farmers.”

He says the current situation is unsustainable.

“And for most sectors of agriculture, the farmer gets roughly 20 percent of the retail dollar.  And as the production costs continue to rise, that is simply not sustainable. I can’t live on that,” says Chris Pawelski. “My production costs now to grow one acre of onions is between $3,000 to $5,000, so before I harvest onions on my 50 acres, I have about $150,000 in expenses. And when I’m getting the same, right now, the price of onions is in the range or $4-$6 for a 50-pound bag, that’s what the grower’s receiving. That’s the prices we received back in the early 1980s.”

The National Young Farmers Coalition says that for many, student loan debt is an obstacle, but for young farmers, the debt often is an insurmountable one.