WASHINGTON — At the Waldington Farm, customers can choose from 21 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.
But Will O’Meara, the 24-year-old assistant manager at the Litchfield County farm, can’t choose to own his own agricultural business. That’s because his student loan debt is nearly $59,000, with a monthly loan payment of $670.
“My end goal is to own a farm. But purchasing or renting land in difficult,” O’Meara said, given his debt load.
To make farm ownership an achievable goal for recent college graduates, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has introduced legislation to support beginning farmers who have less than 10 years of experience. The Student Loan Forgiveness for Farmers and Ranchers Act calls on the Senate to help young farmers to grow a successful business.
Murphy met with about a dozen young farmers in the farm store building to learn more about the difficulties they face. He told the group that he is still paying off his student loan.
“I’m one of the few members of Congress to have a student loan payment,” he said.
The impetus for the bill, in part, is the growing number of young people who are choosing to be farmers, Murphy said.
“There’s been a turnaround trajectory of farm growth in the last 10 years,” he noted.
There are now 33 percent more farmers in Connecticut than a decade ago. Murphy said it is important for legislators to think about policies that would support an increase in local agriculture.
“It makes sense to feed the renaissance of young farmers in Connecticut,” he said.
He sees farming as a public service, in line with the teaching profession in which some teachers receive loan forgiveness for working in low-income schools.
The proposed loan-forgiveness legislation comes as Congress takes up the 2018 Farm Bill, which Murphy thinks could go to a vote in early 2019. He asked the group what wording they would like to see included in the proposed legislation. One item discussed was an update of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which provides $500 million in financial and technical assistance to help conserve agricultural lands and wetlands.
Chelsea Gazillo, of the American Farmland Trust, said the program should only apply to farm land and not forest lands.
“This is not a budget buster for the farm bill,” Murphy said.
Jed Borkon, the farm manager at Waldington Farm, said college students are learning about sustainable agriculture.
“They’re taking (it) in school. They’re applying it, but it is very difficult to obtain land, especially with student loan debt. I’m familiar with the challenge of farming. I’m the wife of a farmer,” said Susan Paxton.
In a news release, Murphy wrote that between 2007 and 2012, the state saw a 15 percent increase in beginning farmers, the largest increase in the country.