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Bills would forgive student loan debt for beginning Wisconsin farmers

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MADISON, Wis. - Three proposals designed to help Wisconsin's struggling farmers pay off college debt, encourage diverse operations and plan for retirement are being circulated in the state Legislature.

"We think they will help farmers transition into the future. The three bills strengthen opportunities for Wisconsin farmers at every stage of their careers," said Rep. Dave Considine, a Democrat from Baraboo.

The measures unveiled Tuesday, which are part of the "Our Farms, Our Future" legislative package, are sponsored by Democrats but have bipartisan support, increasing their chances of being considered by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

One bill would create a competitive grant program that would award grants of up to $50,000 for small-scale farming operations no larger than 50 acres.

Ben and Meghan Snare own Field and Farm Co., which sits on 10 acres of land in Rock County's Plymouth Township. They spoke in support of the bill during a news conference Thursday morning.

"You have big dreams, you have ideas, you have a vision for what you want it to be, but you have to have some capital," Ben Snare said.

They are perhaps the atypical Wisconsin farmers, choosing to enter the field just a few years ago while keeping their full-time jobs and raising three children. They were living in the Chicago suburbs just four years ago but dreamed of something different.

"We went to Paris (on vacation), and it was really while we were there that we fell in love with the lifestyle, with the slow pace of living and were trying to find out if there was a way in which we could replicate that," Meghan Snare said.

The Snares grow 80 to 90 varieties of vegetables. They had 26 members last year in their farm-to-table operation and increased that to more than 50 members this year. Next year, they're hoping for 100.

Another bill would fund two positions within the University of Wisconsin System to help farmers create succession plans for passing down their operations to younger family members. The last proposal would forgive up to $30,000 in higher education debt for college graduates who commit to farming in Wisconsin at least five years.