HELENA — A program to offer student debt assistance to young farmers and ranchers in Montana was signed into law on Friday, May 10, and will encourage young people to pursue a career in agriculture, Montana’s leading industry.
Governor Steve Bullock signed HB 431, which will create a student loan debt assistance program to aid young farmers and ranchers in paying off up to 50 percent of their student loans when they commit to at least 5 years of farming or ranching. Students must have graduated from a Montana University System university or college to qualify.
“Student debt is an incredible barrier to young people being able to start families, buy homes and start businesses, especially something like a farm or ranch,” said Kiah Abbey, interim director of Forward Montana. “I hope that this program is just the start of creative solutions to helping alleviate the burden of student debt on young Montanans.”
Farmers and ranchers are public servants who dedicate their lives to feeding the rest of the country. In Montana, they steward over 58 million acres of land and are critical to rural economies. According to the USDA agricultural census, the average age of a farmer in Montana in 2017 was 58. Only 8 percent of farmers in our state were under the age of 35 — in fact, there were almost four times more farmers over 65 than under 35.
Montana is lucky to have a university system where young people who want to continue the farming and ranching tradition can get an education in agriculture and gain the knowledge that will help them bring Montana’s farms and ranches into the future. But those students, like many others in Montana, are often graduating with massive student loan debt. Student borrowers make up 60 percent of Montana graduates, and those borrowers have an average of $28,000 in debt.
This program will be funded through the Montana Growth Through Agriculture grant program, which has provided funds for strengthening and diversifying agriculture since 1987. The legislature also approved a $275,000 funding increase to the GTA program this session.
“We’re very excited,” said Liv Stavick of the Montana Farm Bureau. “High tuition costs and low commodity prices have created the perfect storm in which the decision for young people to return to production agriculture is simply not financially viable straight out of school.”
HB 431 was sponsored by Rep. Zach Brown (D-Bozeman), who represents half of the Montana State University, including the College of Agriculture building. The Collegiate Young Farmers and Ranchers of MSU were also proponents of the bill throughout its process.
“HB 431 was a win for young people and particularly rural communities across Montana,” Brown said. “Rural Montana depends on agriculture as its driving economic force. Hopefully this policy can help get young families back in small towns and rural areas.”
Forward Montana is a young person-led organization that engages and mobilizes young Montanans to shape their democracy to improve their lives and the lives of all Montanans. To learn more visit www.forwardmontana.org.