Though it’s the fourth largest state in the nation, Montana remains extremely rural with its low population density – 48th in the country. Agriculture remains Montana’s number one industry despite the fact low commodity prices have made it less favorable for young people to return to the family farm or ranch.
The average Montana producer is 58 years old with less than 8 percent of Montana farmers under the age of 35. The state offers young people top tier post-secondary education opportunities, but most college graduates are leaving their institutions with an average of $28,000 in student loans, and individuals are having to seek employment off the family operation to make enough money to pay off that debt.
Montana agriculture is not the only one feeling the side effects of this skewed debt-to-income ratio, as rural communities are suffering as well.
Rep. Zach Brown (D) of Bozeman was aware of these industry concerns, so he introduced a bill (HB 431) in 2017 that would offer student debt assistance to young framers and ranchers. Unfortunately, the bill died in the Senate, but Rep. Brown was not deterred. He sponsored the bill again during Montana’s 66th Legislative Session and this time the bill quietly moved through the Legislature with little fanfare and was signed into law by Gov. Steve Bullock on May 10, 2019.
HB 431 gives the Growth Through Agriculture program (GTA) the authority to use up to $100,000 of their funds for a student debt assistance program to aid young farmers and ranchers. The program can pay up to 50 percent of the individual’s student loans after they commit to farming or ranching for five years. To qualify for the program, individuals must have graduated from a Montana University System institution with either a bachelor’s or an associate degree, be a resident of the state and their primary income must come from production agriculture.
“The entire goal of this program is to get more young people back onto the farm or ranch,” said Liv Stavick, State Governmental Affairs Director for the Montana Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF).
Montana State University’s Collegiate Young Farmer and Ranchers club (CYF&R), which is associated with the MFBF, was instrumental in helping Rep. Brown advance this bill during the interim. The club worked to develop policy within the MFBF so when the bill was dropped during the 2019 Legislative Session, it had the support it needed to be successful. HB 431 is truly grassroots legislation.
“We talk about the lack of succession plans, and how we are trying to get people back into production agriculture, but we really haven’t put anything on paper to help that along. This is just one idea we had that is a great first step in addressing that problem,” explained Cody Shick, former MSU CYF&R member, who spoke on behalf of the legislation and lobbied support for it during the MFBF annual convention held last November in Billings.
Rural development was an underlying theme during Montana’s 2019 Legislative session and HB 431 was a win for small town America. Agriculture is a huge contributor to rural economics and this bill could make it more feasible for young people to return home to their rural communities.
“I believe our legislatures are starting to realize our rural communities need help,” Stavick stated.
Montana’s Growth Through Agriculture grant program, which provides funds for strengthening and diversifying agriculture, received a $275,000 funding boost as well during the recent Legislative Session through the passing of HB 52. This additional funding means some new rules and regulations will need to be implemented into other GTA programs, which is currently priority.
This summer however, the Montana Department of Agriculture, with assistance from the Agriculture Development Council, will work to develop the rules and guidelines associated with GTA’s new student loan assistance program.
“We are excited to be offering this tool to people wanting to return to agriculture,” stated Christy Clark, Chief of the Montana Agriculture Development and Marketing Bureau.
The goal is to have the student loan assistance program ready to launch next year with the applications due Nov. 1, 2020. Visit agr.mt.gov/Growth-Through-Agriculture to stay up-to-date as this program develops.