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New Montana law creates farmer-rancher student debt assistance

HELENA, Mont. — A new Montana state law will create a student debt assistance loan program to help young ranchers and farmers pay off up to half or their student loans when they commit to five years of ranching or farming.

Gov. Steve Bullock the legislation May 10. Finances won't be in place until October and the applications likely will come in the spring, promoters say.

State Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman, was the prime sponsor. He is an urban legislator who works for a non-profit called "One Montana" that promotes rural vitality. His district includes part of the Montana State University campus, including the College of Agriculture building. The Collegiate Young Farmers and Ranchers of MSU supported the bill.

Zach BrownUnder House Bill 431:

• At least 50 percent of the individual's income must be from production agriculture.

• People applying must have either a two- or four-year degree, which doesn't necessarily have to be agriculture-related.

• Successful applicants must be a resident, whose primary occupation is to operate a farm or ranch.

• A recipient must commit to operate a farm or ranch for at least the next five years. If recipients don't fulfill that, they are responsible to repay any assistance.

• The recipient must be the primary owner or next in line, with plans of taking over the farm and ranch.

The debt is paid through the Growth For Agriculture Fund, administered by the Montana Department of Agriculture. A board would decide whether to accept the application or not. The board can decide whether to give relatively few larger grants, or more smaller grants.

The program has been in place since 1987, providing funding for strengthening and diversifying agricultural businesses, Brown said. There is $100,000 that can be used for the student debt assistance program,

Kiah Abbey, interim director of Forward Montana based in Missoula, Mont., said student debt is

an "incredible barrier" for getting into starting a farm or ranch. It is an independent-non-profit that builds power for young people, ages 16 to 30 years old. The group registers about 8,000 people to vote every two years.

"It's a new idea helping to diversify the folks coming into farming and ranching," Abbey said.

Rachel Prevost is from Lambert, Mont., where her family raises spring wheat, safflower, and cattle. She's a senior at Carroll College, a private college, so the loan assistance program won't be available to her, but it could help her younger brother who will attend Montana State University this fall.

"This is a fantastic program that incentivizes returning to farming and ranching for students because it takes away some of the pressures of student loans," Prevost said in a statement. "I know for our family, having a program available that can alleviate a portion of student loan debt makes it possible for someone in our family to come back to our family farm and ranch and continue working, producing and innovating as an ag producer in Montana, without the full weight of student loans inhibiting us."

Liv Stavick, the Montana Farm Bureau director of state affairs, said she knows of no statistics that indicate whether farm and ranch youth carry any different student loan load than other students. About 60 percent of Montana graduates carry debts, and those debts average of $28,000 per student.

"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," Stavick said.

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