Rural America needs a new deal, or at least a better deal, and if it’s green all the better.
Farm loan delinquencies are rising to levels not seen since the Farm Debt Crisis of the 1980s, from which the rural midwest never really recovered. Nearly a third of Iowa farmers growing corn and soybeans caught up in a trade war with China are said to be under extreme stress, according to Iowa State University. They’re the younger ones.
Rural communities are draining young people. Two-thirds of Iowa’s 99 counties are losing population and prospects as manufacturing jobs leach out of the midwest. The Information Age jobs are not in those county seat towns of 5,000 people — they’re in Minneapolis or Des Moines.
Meanwhile, we’re losing our precious topsoil and polluting our rivers – killing the Gulf of Mexico in the process – as we chase ever-higher corn yields in a vain bid to cut a profit on thin commodity markets. Iowa is losing soil four to five times faster than it can be regrown – already yields and crop quality are declining because of it, which ultimately leads to higher food prices with less nutrition.
The midwest would welcome a new deal, and this is where it must start.
The Great Plains from Iowa down through Kansas and Texas lead the world in wind energy production. Yet the wind energy production tax credit is set to wane and expire over the next five years. Those wind turbine royalties are increasingly important in western Kansas where you can barely raise a corn crop even with irrigation because of soil degradation and warmer nights wrought by climate change. Wind energy technicians who keep the blades whirring are paid good union wages and are welcome residents in tiny Iowa villages. They could ply their trade in West Virginia as well.
Yet they are fought at every turn. Astroturf groups spring up to clamor against new wind farm developments, citing phony “science” of human and fowl health threats, and funded by unknown interests. They have been able to slow or block development of new production and transmission capacity while new oil pipelines are laid near sacred Native ground and under the Missouri river without a problem. Utility companies, while capitalizing on wind revenue, continue to try to squeeze out small farms and businesses from metering their production back into the energy grid. They’ve been fighting that battle since the late 1980s, when Iowa wrote the first state renewable energy portfolio. And our grid isn’t getting that much smarter, so it can ship wind power when it’s needed where it’s needed, but remains vulnerable to natural and computer-assisted disaster.
Wind, solar and renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel have strong appeal in rural areas. While corn-based ethanol presents environmental challenges from growing the feedstock, it presents a pathway to new sustainable fuels production using everything from algae to switchgrass. A fair deal doesn’t cut out corn growers, but helps them find a new way to live amid a landscape transformed by torrential rains in spring and fall. Farmers are looking at new revenue sources as they have lost money five straight years trying to make a living from eroding commodity markets. New, regional food economies that keep local profits local are just starting to take shape if only they could find seed money to organize them to survive.
The concentration of food resources into the hands of a few – four firms produce most of the nation’s meat, and two are foreign-owned – can be regulated or even dispersed by finally enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act, written just before FDR’s New Deal. But no attorney general or agriculture secretary has had the political muscle to actually enforce the act that demands open and transparent markets and guards against exploitation of farmers through contracted production. And, the Trump administration disbanded the Packers and Stockyards Administration enabled by that historic law.
Enforcement could lead to a more diverse food supply network that rewards resiliency in agriculture. And it would be welcomed. But the reverse is happening on all fronts.
The Conservation Stewardship Program is designed to bring cattle out of unsustainable feedlots and back on to lush grass. It rewards farmers who implement conservation plans and adopt rotational grazing practices that reduce chemical use, capture carbon from the atmosphere and into the soil, and restore soil health through microbial renewal. Yet Congress cut that program’s funding in half in the latest five-year farm bill. The Conservation Reserve Program’s acreage has been cut by a quarter in the last decade for lack of funds. Meanwhile, crop insurance is expanded to cover adventurism as those stressed younger farmers are forced to plant up to the riverbank to make their rent.
A Green New Deal could have cachet in the electorally vital midwest, which flipped from Obama to Trump, if rural communities knew it was actually for them and not for the utility company or the ethanol traders. The Great Plains offer the greatest opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by replacing smokestacks with solar arrays and wind turbines. It’s happening already – nearly half of Iowa’s electricity is generated by wind. And, the region offers the capacity to capture and store deadly carbon if there were an incentive to do so. Taking corn out of ethanol and converting those acres to grass for cattle can eliminate nitrate and phosphorous pollution of the Gulf of Mexico – which is destroying the fishing industry from oxygen deprivation in our quest for 200 bushels of corn per acre that the world obviously does not want. We are growing about 30% too much corn and soybeans, the markets say.
We can replace lost coal jobs with solar jobs if markets are induced in a carbon trading regime. We can restore rural food processing innovation and good jobs for educated workers if small producers can get a toehold in the market through anti-trust enforcement. All the mechanisms are in place already if we choose to use them, but we don’t. The wind tax credit has to fight for its life every three to five years. The farm bill props up corn production planted in a chemical base controlled by a seed oligopoly, which generates nitrogen gas as harmful to the climate as carbon dioxide.
But there is a new conversation taking place among old farmers and declining rural communities, that a new deal is better than a raw deal or no deal at all for Rural America. Most of us out here where the tall corn rustles know that change is in the wind. We’re getting ready for it because Nature ultimately will leave us little alternative. The question is whether our politics is ready to use tools already at our disposal to save these rural byways, and our planet. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, or even the old New Deal.
Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times in Iowa and won the 2017 Pulitzer prize for editorial writing. Cullen is the author of the book, Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper (Viking 2018).