Farmers fight for student loan forgiveness as federal program falters

Congress hasn't even voted on The Young Farmer Success Act. But the program it depends on is facing problems of its own.

Last week, participants in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program got a nasty shock: The Education Department said their approval letters, which come from third-party administrator FedLoan Servicing, may be invalid.

The federal program, which launched in 2007, incentivizes college graduates to take jobs in government and the non-profit sector by promising to forgive student loans after ten years of payment. An estimated 25 percent of the workforce is eligible, and FedLoan Servicing has sent approval letters to more than half a million people. That means half a million people are pursuing careers in public service and making plans for the future with the assumption that their student loans will disappear after 120 monthly payments, or ten years. The first people to finish the payment cycle are expecting their debt to be forgiven starting in October of this year.

“It’s clear that the Department of Education changed the rules in midstream.”

But on March 23, in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Bar Association (ABA) that alleged FedLoan Servicing revoked eligibility for several lawyers midway through their payments, the Department of Education said FedLoan’s approval letters are not binding. What that means is, regardless of whether or not FedLoan says you’re eligible for student loan forgiveness, the Department of Education reserves the right to make its own judgment call after you’ve already made your 120 payments.

“It’s clear that the Department of Education changed the rules in midstream,” ABA executive director Jack Rives wrote in a message to his staff, which was later quoted in a blog post on the association’s website. “That action forces public service employees to gamble with their financial futures and run the risk of being saddled with crushing, interest-enhanced debt.”

It’s also pretty terrible news for the Young Farmer Success Act, a bill recently reintroduced to Congress that would classify farmers as public servants (making them eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program). The act, which was first introduced in 2015 but never brought to a vote (and has been a major focus of the National Young Farmers Coalition) was intended to address the significant economic burdens of student loans on beginning farmers, whose business startup costs include obligations like leasing huge parcels of land and buying seeds.

If the Department of Education and FedLoan are struggling to administer the program before its first participants even start to benefit, Congress has reason to delay expanding the pool of qualified workers to include farmers. And even if the bill does pass Congress, how is the Department of Education supposed to nail down the definition of a “farmer” if it can’t even agree with its own administrator on what it means to be a non-profit or government employee? 

Luckily, the National Young Farmers Coalition has a few other irons in the fire (or plows in the field). Its most recent campaign is Heart and Grain, a series of blog posts and videos sponsored by King Arthur Flour. The premise is simple: Farmers over the age of 65 outnumber young farmers (below the age of 35) at a ratio of 6:1. Meanwhile, the demand for sustainably grown grains is on the rise. So it makes sense that young farmers would lead the charge to revitalize specialty grain production. But there’s one major hurdle. Grain farming, by its very nature, comes with considerable equipment and startup costs. How is a brand-new farmer, student loans or no, supposed to buy a $400,000 combine?

The campaign kicked off this week with the release of a mini-documentary about John and Halee Wepking, two former New York City chefs who recently moved to Wisconsin. They’re working for farmer Paul Bickford there, learning the trade on his 900-acre organic farm, and hoping to eventually buy his land. They’re raising a small herd of grass-fed cattle as well as small crops of wheat, spelt, and flint corn. You can follow their blog throughout the season on the project’s website.

The Heart and Grain campaign will follow two other young grain farmers as they figure out how to finance their businesses and build a market for their specialty grains. Watch the first mini-documentary here and keep an eye out for the other two later this summer.

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.