Thu, Mar 21, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Rural America is ready for a New Deal — preferably green

The US has the opportunity to rethink its approach to renewable energy and food production, especially in the Midwest’s farming community

By Art Cullen

Rural America needs a new deal, or at least a better deal, and if it is 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 dispute with China are said to be under extreme stress, according to Iowa State University. They are 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 are in Minneapolis or Des Moines.

Meanwhile, we are 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 — 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 American 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 have been fighting that battle since the late 1980s, when Iowa wrote the first state renewable energy portfolio.

Moreover, our grid is not getting that much smarter, so it can ship wind power when it is needed where it is 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 does not 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.

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