Farming is Public Service

Jillian and Ross

By Karla Capacetti

After graduating in 2011 from UNC Chapel Hill, I spent a year living and working on a family farm in nearby Hillsborough. I experienced the edible seasons this bioregion has to offer as well as the realities of farm life: daily chores to keep animals healthy and happy; long hours in the fields building the soil, planting, weeding, and harvesting a variety of crops; late Friday nights processing chickens and early Saturday mornings preparing for markets. The reward for this hard work: hot coffee and thankful eaters ready to devour the precious fruits of that labor.

By the end of my internship, I had decided I would someday be a full-time farmer. But first, I enrolled in Green Mountain College’s online Masters in Sustainable Food Systems to deepen my understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by farmers and eaters in my community. I’ll graduate this July with more than my degree—I will also have student loans to pay off.

Student loans can put the brakes on anyone’s personal and professional goals. For young people wanting to pursue a career in farming, college debt can make it difficult for educated and passionate graduates to afford land, invest in capital, and finance new food enterprises.

Although North Carolina is the 8th largest agricultural producer in the United States, it largely belongs to the Baby Boomer generation. The average age of a farmer is 57 (in 2013), and less than 5 percent of growers are younger than 35. If we hope to build a robust and resilient local farm and food system for all there should be fruitful incentives to encourage young people to choose farming as their profession.

POP Market farmer, Jillian Mickens of Open Door Farm in Cedar Grove, farms full time while her husband, Ross, earns a second income to help pay off their student loan debt.

“It would be impossible to pay our student loans without an off-farm income while we are growing our business,” Mickens says, noting the challenges of solo labor. “It would be a dream to have my husband work with me full time on the farm!”

Jillian and Ross grew up in rural Caswell County, not on farms, but surrounded by a rich agricultural heritage in their community. Jillian earned a Master of Public Health and became a Registered Dietician while Ross became an electrical engineer. Together, they pondered where food came from, researched food systems and practiced production. The two began their venture in small-scale sustainable agriculture in 2012 with a mission to be a source of healthy affordable food.

Open Door Farm

Under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), graduates working full-time for public service organizations qualify for loan forgiveness after 10 years of payments. Eligible employment includes nonprofit organizations like Farmer Foodshare as well as public safety, public health, public education, and others.

All of these services are very important to society, but agriculture is perhaps one of the most vital careers that contribute to healthy environments and viable economies, not to mention a well-fed public!

“Farming should be considered public service so that young people can grow wholesome foods and protect and steward the land and Earth,” Mickens says.

Farmer Foodshare’s POP Market is a conduit for young farmers, like Open Door, trying to break into the market and make ends meet in a competitive industry. We’re able to offer exceptional quality produce to hunger-relief organizations at wholesale prices, while our farmers gain a market that offers fair prices, training and practice for scaling up their wholesale production and assistance with good agriculture practices (GAP) certification. Everybody wins.

By definition, the POP Market is fostering a healthier food system that nourishes both the farming economy and North Carolina’s hungriest residents.

“Young people, especially with education, have the skills and the energy to become successful farm entrepreneurs,” Mickens says. “We make great farmers because we are innovators that have the ability to take farming to new levels of efficiency, sustainability and productivity.”

For more information about the case for farming as public service or to get involved, visit www.youngfarmers.org/studentloans/. You can join the conversation with the hashtag #FarmingIsPublicService.