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

The concentration of food resources in 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 former US president Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

However, 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. Moreover, US President Donald Trump’s 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. However, 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 the US 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 past 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 former US president Barack 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 is 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 hectares 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 an acre (0.4 hectares) that the world obviously does not want. We are growing about 30 percent 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 do not.

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.

However, 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 are getting ready for it because nature ultimately will leave us little alternative.

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