MADISON, Wis. - Farmers could get a break on their student loans under a new plan at the capitol.
The new measure would create a loan-forgiveness program for farmers who commit to staying in the state after they finish a tech college, short course or university degree.
Rep. Mark Spreitzer would offer to start at least 20 grants to new farmers of up to $30,000 to cover their student loan debt over five years if they commit to full-time farming during that time.
"The population of farmers in Wisconsin is aging," Spreitzer said. "The average age of a farmer in Wisconsin is about 54.5 years old and there are more than twice as many farmers over the age of 45 as in their first decades of farming, so we need to make sure there's a new generation of farmers coming."
Lauren and Kyle Rudersdorf, who met while students at UW-Madison and who started Raleigh's Hillside Farm outside Evansville, think the idea is great.
"Kyle was a soil science major and he loved being outside and working with plants," Lauren said. "He had that end and I was passionate about people and building community, so we were like, 'Let's see if my parents would loan us some land and let's give this a try.'"
For five years, they've grown their community-supported agriculture or CSA farm, selling vegetable shares to consumers and selling vegetables to a downtown food cart.
But both have other part or full-time jobs because of some $40,000 in student loan debt.
"The big thing we're doing in year five is building a pack shed and digging a well separate from my parents, but we had to wait five years to feel comfortable to take out that loan," Lauren said. "When you already have $40,000 in debt, you don't want to take out another $50,000 to finance your farm. That's terrifying."
Spreitzer said his bill would serve as an incentive to overcome such barriers.
"Starting out as a farmer isn't always very profitable in those first few years and it can take a while to get going," Spreitzer said. "There are other barriers in terms of access to land, purchasing equipment and all those are expensive. And if someone has student loan debt on top of that, they have to be making payments."
To get reimbursements under the program, farmers would have to apply to a council created to award grants, made up of agriculture and lending industry officials. The farmers selected would have substantial financial need and would be most likely to succeed based on business plans or expertise.
The price tag on this measure could be an issue. It would start at $120,000 and offer loans to at least 20 farmers and and increase to $600,000 by the fifth year.
The Rudersdorfs say loan forgiveness could go a long way in helping the next generation of farmers.
"We know a lot of young farmers who are in the search for land, trying to figure out how to piece those early phases together and they're amazing entreprenuers," Lauren said. "They're brilliant and they could add a lot of value to our state through their ideas but they need a little help and that would be incredible I think."
The bill already has bipartisan support and Sprietzer is looking for co-sponsors through next week.