Attention U.S. Government: Farming is a Public Service!

From by Steven Waldman
Attention U.S. Government: Farming is a Public Service!

Farming is a public service, and the federal government should treat this vocation as such under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

Currently the program serves teachers, nurses, doctors, public interest attorneys, government employees, and nonprofit professionals. It’s time to add farmers to that list. The preceding vocations are all noble and probably worthy of such classification, but good health from proper nutrition transcends most, if not all of these careers—it’s fundamental to our existence—and those who’ve taken on the burdens of providing it deserve providing-for in return.

Ecologically benign (and beneficent!), sustainable farming is essentially the definition of a public service in every sense of the term. Responsible farms provide the healthy foods that we should all eat more of. Responsible farmers maintain or increase the capacities of their soil to grow food, sequestering carbon and mitigating climate change in the process. Responsible farming does all this without adding noxious chemicals to the food chain and the environment.

What’s more, it’s a labor of love. Most farms don’t make much money, and many farmers count on secondary incomes to support their “habit.” Which is fine—most of us do it for a plethora of other, more important, reasons than money. But that financial consideration is a tremendous obstacle to overcome when you’re starting out, one that is insurmountable for most.

It’s one thing to be able to do an apprenticeship to learn the ropes, if you’re able to get away with scraping by for a season. That’s what I did, with two-thirds of my discretionary income that year devoted to my student loan creditor. It’s entirely different to start an operation of your own, with access to land and capital being so challenging. Add student loan debt into the equation and it becomes a pipe dream.

Which is a shame, because this needs to be incentivized. The fact that the age of the average farmer in this country is 58 years old. A lot of idealistic young people, me included, are willing to forego the chance to make comfortable money in order to provide an enormously valuable service to society because it strengthens communities, individuals, and the environment. And yet, incredibly, we face an uphill battle.

We’re willing to compete. For the scant wages. Through the long hours, hard work, and the inherent physical dangers. Through the increasingly unpredictable weather. Against the conventional growers who can minimize labor costs by externalizing them onto individual health and natural resources.

With the odds so stacked against what we are trying to accomplish, a more level playing field would be nice—and a great first step would be adding farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

Everyone who takes on those same federal loans that I did signs the same payback agreement, whether they go on to pillage or build. But that’s just it: the time we spend in secondary education learning about the world and our place in it brings us to radically different realizations of our lives.

Most individuals entering college have no idea what they want to major in, let alone spend their career doing. So while you can say those people with financially non-lucrative careers should perhaps have foregone college—“it’s not for everyone,” “the world needs ditch diggers,” “tomato pickers”—I would have never wound up where I am today had it not been for my experience there. There was no family farm to run back to. I studied politics, which led to food.

Food is highly political. From how it’s grown, harvested, and distributed to how natural resources are managed (or plundered). One of my favorite quotes, which encapsulates my feelings towards soil science, politics, and environmental stewardship, comes from soil scientist Rattan Lal in The Organic Manifesto: “We are dealing with 10 global issues at the moment: food security, availability of water, climate change, waste disposal, extinction of biodiversity, soil degradation and desertification, poverty, political and ethnic instability, and rapid population increase. The solution to all of these lies in soil management."

I got into farming to change food policy after learning about the disastrous state of our food system. Once I acquainted myself with the political impediments to meaningful reform, I surmised I could make more of a difference at the grassroots level.

My formal education was vital to fostering this understanding, from the political science classes themselves to my minor in psychology, to critical thinking skills honed in various seminars, to nutrition and health courses, to economics.

I surely could have chosen a profession that guaranteed a more financially-secure future, but I also have values I hold dear, that I believe are essential to a healthy society, and I value food security for myself and those around me more than money. I’m not asking to get rich, I’m merely asking for some forgiveness for choosing a career that is absolutely essential for a healthy society.

Last year, another Long Island, N.Y., farmer, Bren Smith, published a highly reactionary op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers.” It was directed to me by most of my family and friends, seeking to elicit my opinion on the matter. In the days after its publication there were many well-articulated rebuttals about the virtues of farming transcending the financial struggle that so often accompanies it, with which I found common ground and took solace.

Don’t not let your children grow up to be farmers; endeavor to create a society which lifts the burdens from entering the vocation in the first place; after all, agriculture was the impetus for modern civilization. It wouldn’t take much to make it the impetus for post-modern civilizations’ survival as well.

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