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Rural America is ready for some sort of a New Deal, preferably green

By Art Cullen

Here in farming country, we have the opportunity to rethink our approach to renewable energy and food production. Rural America needs a new deal, or at least a better—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 being drained of 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.

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. 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.

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 an acre 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 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 are 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). This column was originally published in the Guardian (www.theguardian.com).

 


Fall 2019