Student Loan Series Update: A Young Farmer Reaps Good News

May 5, 2015

Credit WAMC, Allison Dunne

Back in December, we brought you a series on student loan debt. One of the stories focused on young farmers, who face unique challenges. Now, a follow-up: one of the young farmers in our original story is starting her season with a lot more green than she had hoped.

This was Leanna Mulvihill in December.

“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.”

And this is Mulvihill today.

“I found out that I was selected for the New York State Young Farmer Loan Forgiveness Incentive Program, I think is the whole name,” says Mulvihill. “But basically I got all of my student loans forgiven.”

And she’s as happy as her pigs in mud or, in this case, composted vegetables. Mulvihill secured the gate and dumped a large garbage pail full of all sorts of vegetables and fruit slightly past their prime. Back in December, the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry graduate was advocating, in her role as operations manager for the National Young Farmers Coalition, federal student loan forgiveness to farmers. The hope is to add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. This is not yet reality. The state program that lifted Mulvihill’s debt burden was in its first year.

The New York State Young Farmers Loan Forgiveness Incentive Program provides awards to individuals who obtain an undergraduate degree from an approved state college or university and agree to operate a farm in the state, on a full-time basis, for five years. Mulvihill is running Four Legs Farm at Pine Farm in New Paltz, where her boarders include 23 pigs, 30 lambs, and four cows on loan to guard the lambs.

Credit WAMC, Allison Dunne

“I feel better about my financial situation now. Having my student loans forgiven is certainly not a small thing, but I also had my USDA Farm Service Agency microloan come through, so knowing that I was… I knew that program existed and lots of people take advantage of that program, but I’ve never applied for a loan besides my student loans before,” says Mulvihill. “So going through that process and seeing that and forming relationships with the officers in the Middletown office and knowing that I can get access to that money is huge.”

“Wait, you got approved for a loan?” asks Dunne.

“Yeah, I got…” Mulvihill replies.

“When did this happen?” Dunne asks.

“Oh, this also happened in March. It happened the same week as my student loans getting forgiven. It was like best week ever,” Mulvihill says.

Credit WAMC, Allison Dunne

She says she used the $10,000 loan to help with her CSA, or community supported agriculture, model, through which she is signing up meat-share members. Mulvihill needed money up front to purchase the animals and get through her first feed order.

Then there’s Caleb Pawelski who is looking to amass little in the way of student loan debt. He’s a high school senior who has been accepted to all the schools where he applied. When I visited him and his father Chris Pawelski on at the family onion farm – Pawelski Farms – in Orange County’s Black Dirt region in December, Caleb had applied to colleges saying he has an interest in science, math and engineering. His father attended the University of Iowa. Chris Pawelski was hoping his alma mater would come through with a better scholarship package, but it’s the New Jersey Institute of Technology that is offering the most. Here’s Chris Pawelski.

“NJIT has offered him a full ride of academic scholarships, not financial aid. This is purely academic scholarships. So it’s really hard to turn down that,” says Pawelski. “I was routing for Iowa being an Iowa alum myself. And they offered him a significant amount of academic scholarships, but he still would have had to have taken out roughly $15,000 a year and would have ended his college career with at least $60,000 in debt, assuming we’re not able to help him with some bad years on the farm.”

And it’s those bad years that have Caleb pursuing other interests. He says that while he enjoys the farm, he wants to count on a steady paycheck. Caleb does not rule out a return to the now fourth generation farm down the road. And Caleb will commute to school, leaving him with one foot on the farm. Again, Chris Pawelski.

“Caleb enjoys working on the farm. He’s now doing more and more different types of work, including a little more tractor work as well, and Caleb does enjoy it. But, I’ll tell you, coming from experience myself, when I, the first two years of college I stayed home and of course through high school I worked every day after school and during all my breaks and such, and it’s very difficult,” says Pawelski. “So he has to understand, obviously I’m not going to in any way interfere if he has homework to do or  projects or anything like that will always come first, but if he has free time, farm work’s going to come before Pokémon or Wii or any kind of games on the TV.”

In 2014, the Pawelskis enjoyed a banner year on the farm. If every year could be assured to be a copy of last, Caleb and his father could count on profitability.

“We actually started planting seeds on the exact same day this year and last year – April  12. Our transplants arrived a little bit later. The onions have jumped up. The warm weather’s very good,” Pawelski says. “It’s been exceptionally dry, but the soil had a lot of moisture in it so, so far, things look really good, including the weeds.”

He says a summer like last year’s, with warm days and cool nights, plus an inch or so of rain a week, would be ideal.