In light of recent events, I've been forced to confront decisions I've been making for the past couple of years, and am starting to wonder what my next steps in life should be.
I'm 20 years old, and am a sophomore in college, studying sustainable agriculture. I enjoy learning about farming and permaculture and am itching to get some experience doing it. In the future I want to homestead/have a permaculture farm.
However, there are three issues:
a) I'm going into more debt than I'm comfortable with getting this degree. I currently have 20k in debt and I'm expecting to have around 40k in debt by the time I graduate. I plan on working on farms after I graduate, but farm jobs don't pay a lot... looking at my potential debt to income ratio after I graduate makes me sweat...
b) In-person classes in college are cancelled at my school due to coronavirus and I'm really not gaining much from my attempts to learn agriculture in an online classroom setting with little opportunity for IRL applications. I understand that there's a chance that because of social distancing measures, classes may be online into the next semester as well... There's no way of knowing this for sure, but if it were to happen, it would be unfortunate.
c) I currently don't have much real world experience in permaculture or sustainable farming and I really would like to do work outside of a classroom setting! And I'm aware that programs like WWOOF and attra.ncat exist where I can learn hands-on stuff about permaculture without paying 12K a year like I am currently.
I was just wondering what you guys would do in my shoes. Also do you think it's worth it to get this degree?
If I were you , I think I would finish the semester you are in.
And then I think I would take a sabbatical from higher learning.
Your degree is worth having in the long run. But considering your current online options , I would delay rather than rack up your dept higher.
See if you can find a place this summer to get some hands on experience.
Might I suggest the Boot camp experience at the Wheaton ranch as a good choice?
From my own experience of living on my own subsistence homestead, I can say that you don't need a degree to do that successfully. But you do need the knowledge, which can be gained from taking your agriculture courses online and at your own pace. Ultimately getting the degree won't make a difference. But if you plan to operate a permaculture commercial farm, then that ag degree becomes more important. It can make qualifying for government and corporate programs far easier, plus financial loans too.
It's never too late to start! I retired to homestead on the slopes of Mauna Loa, an active volcano. I relate snippets of my endeavor on my blog : www.kaufarmer.blogspot.com
Finish the semester strong. Do not attend next semester unless the virus panic has subsided. You are not getting what you paid for with just online classes. You are right, agriculture is not something to be learned remotely. Find something else that fits your strengths, something that can make you actual money. Something practical, maybe not your dream, and get good at it. Bonus if it does align with permaculture in some way. If you have to switch paths in school to accomplish this, do it. Study business, not necessarily at school. I've seen a lot of brilliant people fail because they just don't understand business. Live with your parents or others if you can and save money. Unless you inherited a big farm, it is going to be hard making a living with a degree in sustainable agriculture. Your desire to have a homestead is admirable, but it will be the school of hard knocks that will waste many of your most critical years. Besides, most everyone needs outside income to make it work. Put it on the shelf for 10 years. 10 years is nothing and it will fly by. Do what most people do, but do it better. Get a normalish job and be disciplined about your money. If you put half the energy into building your profession as you would waste in your first year of messing around in permaculture, you will do amazing. Find permaculture things to get experience with on the weekends and plant a small garden this spring. Make it your hobby. Hold off on having kids until you're at least 25 and don't let bad relationships drag you down. Find someone who brings something to the table if you don't want to be single and don't ignore red flags. You can do everything right and lose all of your hard work to a divorce, trust me, I know. Make friends who share the same dreams and encourage each other.
Thank you all! I appreciate everyone's responses to my questions which , reading again, were extremely vague! I reckon my real question here is, is the debt I'm accruing worth the experience and accreditation I'd be receiving from a degree, or do you guys think it would be possible for me to achieve my goals without one? I'm currently having difficulty paying for the college itself, and I guess I'm just questioning its' value in terms of my long term goals, or if my time would be better spent pursing something more like WWOOF/an apprenticeship/perhaps a permaculture design course/boot camp?
I will definitely be finishing out the semester, and if next semester is online-only, I am planning to take a Leave of Absence from school, so I can come back later when the timing/money is better! :)
I attended a hazelnut informational meeting at an ag school in MN.
The instructor said agriculture was a degree that would cost nothing.
He said there are so many grants out there from seed companies, equipment makers, chemical companies ect. ect..
I suppose you've checked about these in your area.
Maybe it's not the same in your area or they don't have as many grants for sustainable agriculture classes.
Contact Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC)
Student Loan Support Center
If you call the main Student Aid number, someone should be able to assist you with finding a solution. While I would not encourage anyone with significant debt to allow interest to accrue for a long period of time, an income based deferral / forebearance can allow you time to think and make a choice that best suits you. Being rushed or feeling coerced to accept a less than ideal circumstance can lead to difficulties and generally feeling icky about it all.
You could talk with an Academic Advisor or Counselor at your college to find out what options may be available specific to COVID-19 forcing online classes which are not cutting it for you. My first guess, however, is they will probably want to keep as many students in attendance as possible because that is part of what they are hired to do. However, you have the last say in what happens with your education. I think it's wise to ask the questions you are asking. There may be other questions to consider, some of which have been addressed here, especially by Joseph Lofthouse.
If a degree is important to achieve the goal you are aiming for, finish with the best grade possible this semester and call StudentAid.gov with the contact numbers above to inquire about an income based repayment type deferral. And as mentioned above, grants and scholarships are available for the effort of looking and completing applications. Your college should have an advisor or counselor who can assist with that or direct you to whomever can.
These forums are a rich information source. I think Paul Wheaton's threads in these forums about HUSP, Gert, and Otis might be a good start. Work and insights by Sepp Holzer, Bill Mollison, Geoff Lawton, and others, might help with exploring methods, concepts, and ideas.
I think you're awesome for being into permaculture so young and that you will find many like minds on your journey, so there will be good discussions that will help you figure out a path to follow that suits you.
I will add that perhaps what seems like vague responses is an effort to not tell you what to do with your life.
I would definitely speak for the LOA option. Take step back and dabble in the real world. If you decide to return and finish the degree you can wait until hands-on education is re-established and return with some insight and context.
The idea of supplementing agricultural theoretical knowledge with some other needed, useful and profitable skill is not a bad one. Go WOOF, and observe the world and consider getting a trade like welding, electrician, HVAC, plumbing. Or a skill set like running a small business, producing commercial food etc. Something that would let you be more self sufficient around your plot of land, contribute to your community, and pull in an external income when you need it. These things don't need to be all done at once, but investing in yourself and your skill set doesn't need to be done in a university getting a degree.
At the risk of alienating lots of goodwill!
I dunno what courses you've taken, but I would concentrate on business courses. And perhaps change venue to online courses or community college to save bucks.
Where you learn to navigate the business world is far less important than simply having a grasp of how to navigate.
While not everyone can be a good farmer / horticulturist / homesteader, it certainly comes easier than navigating the shark infested waters of business, and there are metric tons of people whom have worked their heart out just to have it repossesed / siezed for taxes.
While it may not stir your soul as much working the land, having a healthy bank account creates a warm and fuzzy feeling when little Billy gets the crap stomped out of him by a half broke horse, or Mama has complications delivering number seven.
Just like damn few of the thousands of excellent pitchers make a living on the mound, its extraodinarily rare for a really excellent farmer to recieve accolade (or adequate renumeration!) for the excellence of his carrots and the rare blush on hand raised tomatoes.
That doesn't mean abandon your love of farming, but you will enjoy farming a lot more with the skills to wring the maximum return for you efforts, rather than the maximum effort for your returns.
Without exception, every task is easier when approached with a full wallet.
Frequently (although not always!) the end result is better too!
As a way to afford these escapades consider the trades, Electrical, Plumbing, HVAC, Insulators, Linemen, Pile drivers. Heavy Equipment operators, all of these trades have skills that are useful in homesteading, and allow a quick return and ongoing lifetime opportunity.
Nightime education and daytime apprenticeships has been a recipe for success for many generations.
Finaly (just to drive another nail in my coffin!) apprenticeships pay cash while you learn. Internships allow you to learn the value of cash....because your not getting any!
Nothing is foolproof to a sufficiently patient fool!
I hate people who use big words just to make themselves look perspicacious.
Good questions, lots of good ideas above, so here are several thoughts.
I've taught in Bachelors and Masters degree programs and hail from farm country (Iowa, Oklahoma & California Central Valley). Disclaimer: I do not qualify under the definition of farmer, though my Dad and my Father-in-law did.
In our country most people who get Ag degrees have a family farm, have families in an Ag business or have a specific Ag related path they are pursuing. They know what education to get in order to pursue the career they have selected. From your comments you don't have a small acreage waiting for you when you graduate and even if you did, if you don't have practical experience, good application and business guidance, and tools/materials and similar, you couldn't do what you want for a while after college. but that shouldn't be a problem at your young age.
If you are not pushing hard down one of those specific career paths I mentioned, then I agree that you are obtaining a lot of debt without a plan for repaying (this is now a Dad speaking).
Danger! Will Robinson, Danger! Beware of College Career Counselors - their primary purpose is to get you to take more classes and they do not care about you getting a career unless failing to do so hurts their college. Hence all the 5 and 6 years long college careers in order to get their 4 year bachelors.
So what to do? Consider...
Explore Ag career paths that fit with your education path. Is there one that will get you where you want to go? Do you need to alter your current course path?
Pursue education grants in Ag related careers. Work at this like it is your job. There is money out there, so try to get it (ask professors, department heads and yes those career counselors for funding leads).
What colleges, schools and type of courses should you take?
As one person mentioned, business courses are a strong plus for Ag related businesses. Can you mix the two and get to where you want to be in ten or so years post graduating.
Answer the above questions and you'll answer:
Whether you should get a degree?
What to study?
and if it is financially worth it?
Finally, if the permaculture approach and application is for your own goals, then do as another has mentioned and get a good career that pays the bills, save some money, get to know people doing what you want to do, spend time in their dirt, learn all you can about this knowledge area, then with money saved, applicable experience gained and adequate beginners knowledge, get your own small acreage and give it your own try, while you keep the paying job to cover the bills.
Then when it all comes together, you'll be set up to take advantage of your success.
One last thought, seek out a mentor, they are priceless.
You are going through a thought process that is common in the second year of college. The flunk out rate is highest in year one The withdrawal rate for non academic reasons is highest in year 2. I can't imagine the stress for a student now. I am not anti academic, I taught over a decade at the college level and have a handful of degrees. But, I did not incur the kind of debt you are talking about. And the debt I did incur was waived.
You have already received some excellent advice.
I strongly second the notion of not trusting school counselors. I have a whole list of reasons.
It sounds like you have student loans. Read those loan papers. If you do continue in school with loans, shop for those loans. Look for any wording that states the conditions under which the might be waived.
Do not go back into school without a job. Yes, this may mean fewer classes but, it will also mean less debt.
Be smart in taking classes. For example, I was assigned responsibility at one job for developing a program evaluation system. I took a class in program evaluation and made my work project my academic project. I was able to do my assignments at work.
Keeping the above in mind, also consider independent study classes if they can be connected to your work.
Actively look for a scholarships. Look for them as if it is your job. I made a killing doing this. There are many scholarships that go without people applying for them. Examples might be " students with the middle names of Fred", "people born in Vernon, MI." You get the idea. These will probably be for relatively small amounts, but if you can get dozens of them, it adds up.
You may also want to carefully examine the school you are attending. Are there less expensive ones that are acceptable. Do not dismiss private schools. Some have extremely high tuition rates, but they also have financial aid departments that actually work at their jobs. I am not saying they will automatically less expensive, but do not dismiss them without consideration.
"Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from bad decisions." ... Mark Twain
Especially about learning business. That doesn't mean becoming an accountant. It means learning, one way or another, what it means to make something happen under complex constraints. Ie. make a profit (don't starve), stay out of jail, keep your friends, keep your health, keep your energy. As a broad sweeping summary: Find out "Who You Are" (long term process) so you can make informed decisions, not guesses; keep your eyes open always looking for opportunity amoung other things; and compromise a lot.
While there are "small business classes" (I went through Renaissance Center in SF and can recommend it) for maybe (just guessing, been a longgg time) $1500, many are aimed at people who have already chosen a very specific path and are pushing hard. But the course I took, about 6 months, if I recall, was worth at _least_ 10 times what I paid. So targeted "blue collar" courses can be worth it. But there is a lot of shameless hype around all kinds of education, so pay attention, select carefully. But that is still mostly "ivory tower", theory. (One reason the course I took was targeted at entrepreneurs already hard at work - the students had real problems to apply the classroom theory to immediately.)
In your shoes, going just by what you have told us, it would be strange if you had any clue at all what it means to participate in an adequately functioning business. I learned this by whoring in the IT industry - a "body shop" rented out my services and I got a close look at many offices and decision making processes. Any business will do if you can see how and why it functions and how it screws up. And by working construction as a tradesman. Several different jobs are better than one, but not essential. Working a trade on a construction site is a good way to find out how thing get done - or don't get done. Both from a company perspective and also from your own personal little war with inanimate objects that you must align and assemble (well and speedily) in order to not get fired. You'll learn far more from a task that your really suck at (at the start) than from one you can just whiz through as a "natural". If you reach a position where you must justify every hour in order to get paid, that will help you a lot - "billable hours" as they say. If you find yourself in a position where you must commit to work for a certain price, a bid, that will teach you a lot. If you find a position where you must _sell_ a certain amount in order to get paid, that will teach you a lot. If you end up acting as "lead" or "project manager" or even just plain manager, that will teach you a lot. One of the single hardest jobs in the world is that of the small store manager - whether it be a hair salon, a sandwich shop, a shoe store... You can NOT learn that stuff from a class, because a large part of it is emotional and because a large part of it is figuring out, FOR YOU, YOURSELF, WTF is going on and most especially, what you think about it.
There are many ways to get "experience". I even got a good bit at the SF Zen Center, an outfit not too unlike what Paul has created in his "Labs". But you have to get in there and live it while paying attention, working your butt off and contributing as very best you can. We get out of something what we put into it. So put in a lot...
America is the land of the shameless hustle. If there is a peculiarly American art, it's Business. There is an almost infinite amount on every topic and every moral and spiritual path to be learned from that. And one of the best ways to learn it is from inside.
In case it's not totally clear, you probably want to put the money pit on the back burner for a while... <G>
Cheers and best luck,
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