By Edward Ortiz
Sonoma farmer Andrea Davis-Cetina didn’t discover her passion for farming until she went to college.
She entered Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., intending to study photography but, during a stint on the campus farm, found herself enjoying every aspect of agriculture instead, the 32-year-old said. So she switched course and instead earned a degree in sustainable agriculture in 2005. She now runs Quarter Acre Farm, which grows organic vegetables and seedlings.
“Studying agriculture in college was extremely helpful for me in becoming a successful farmer because I was able to study how to grow a plant from a seed or make a crop plan,” Davis-Cetina said. “I was also able to take courses in ecology, anthropology and rural studies, which prepared me for the lifestyle and challenges of being a farmer.”
At one time, young farmers inherited the family’s fields or gained valuable experience working neighboring crops. Today, driven by more complicated organic farming practices and agricultural technology, they’re increasingly winning their farm smarts in classrooms or during an internship, and either leasing or buying farmland from non-family members.
Like other starting farmers, Davis-Cetina said she believes a college degree allowed her to play catch-up.
“Once I decided I wanted to farm as a career, I felt the need to study everything I could get my hands on involving farming,” she said.
Young farmers are part of a demographic that agriculture officials say are needed to replenish a rapidly graying industry. In Sacramento County, the average age of a farmer is 57 years old, just below the national average. The aging farmer population means that nearly 65 percent of farmland in the U.S. is on the cusp of some sort of transition as many farmers near retirement age, according to the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture census.
Roughly a quarter of farmers now earn college degrees – a rate slightly lower than those in U.S. households, where 30 percent earn college degrees, according to a 2011 USDA report.
The value of a college education for farmers is of no small concern at the Winters-based Center for Land-Based Learning, a nonprofit focused on creating the next generation of farmers.
“A degree in agriculture is extremely important – as is a college education,” said Mary Kimball, the center’s executive director. “Like with any major, one of the most critical things is learning how to learn, how to work with others, and seeing that there is a very large world out there beyond yourself.”
Getting a degree, however, also requires taking on school loan debt – a new challenge for farmers whose debt typically came from a land or equipment purchase.
A recent survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition, a nonprofit farm advocacy organization, found that student loan debt is a barrier to would-be farmers and ranchers. The survey found that 30 percent of respondents delayed or declined getting into agriculture because of student loans. An additional 48 percent cited student loans as preventing them from growing their business or getting credit.
At UC Davis, the nation’s premier agricultural university, 81 percent of students pursuing a degree in agricultural or environmental science have taken on student loans. The average cumulative loan debt for graduating undergraduates in those two majors, for the 2013-14 school year, was $17,921.
“Young people are telling us their student loan debt is one of the most serious barriers they face when they consider a career in agriculture,” said Lindsey Lusher Shute, coalition executive director.
School loan debt has forced young farmers to make tough choices.
“After graduating, I was excited to make a career for myself in agriculture, but interning on farms is not a way to save up money to start a farm when your student loan is waiting for you,” Davis-Cetina said.
She said she still needs to work 15 hours a week at an off-farm job to pay her bills. The estimated payoff date for her loan: October 2017.
Some are coming to the field with college degrees that have nothing to do with agriculture – like urban farmer Tyler Stowers. The 29-year-old picked up the farming bug while working at farm-to-table restaurants when he was pursuing a bachelor’s in philosophy at UC Berkeley.
“My college experience has proven very helpful to me as a farmer,” Stowers said. “A farmer is required to wear many hats on a daily basis, and my years in school exposed me to world problems and potential solutions that I otherwise would have probably never experienced.”
Like Davis-Cetina, Stowers also took on college loans. The loan payments and the high price of farmland in the Sacramento region forced Stowers to take an unconventional path to farming. In lieu of a land purchase, Stowers turned 1,200 square feet of his parents’ backyard in suburban Roseville into verdant rows of lettuce, basil and other vegetables.
“In these vital beginnings of a boot-strapping startup, every dollar counts,” Stowers said. “I’ve cut my lifestyle down to bare bones so that every dollar earned is reinvested back into the farm.”
Cattle rancher Ariel Greenwood said she believes young farmers should approach the financial demands of a college degree with a healthy dose of caution.
Since graduating from North Carolina State University two years ago with a double major in psychology and agroecology, the 25-year-old has worked as a cattle herder for a small startup company called Holistic Ag. She grazes holistically managed, grass-fed cattle at a 3,200-acre research preserve in Santa Rosa.
She said she wants to deepen her grazing experience through further coursework and workshops. However, making a $300 monthly college loan payment on an income of less than $1,000 monthly won’t allow it, Greenwood said.
“Studying agroecology and related coursework definitely enhanced my understanding of every aspect of the work I’m doing,” she said. “That being said, if someone told me I’d be financially crippled right out of the gate in order to obtain that extra edge, I’d probably have reconsidered.”