Can This Unlikely Duo Revive Rural America and Help the Planet?

Source: By Art Cullen, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, January 28, 2021

Joe Biden and Tom Vilsack plan to take swift action on climate change proposals.

President Biden and Tom Vilsack, his agriculture secretary nominee, may seem an unlikely pair to lead a transformation of agriculture to battle climate change. Many skeptics have piped up to object to the appointment of Mr. Vilsack, 70, who served two terms in President Barack Obama’s cabinet. They see him as a tired choice at a moment that demands dramatic change.

These detractors believe Mr. Vilsack is too cozy with agribusiness. They say he failed to halt mergers, protect growers contracted to giant meat companies or advance the interests of Black and other disadvantaged farmers.

Yet the dynamic duo of Mr. Biden and Mr. Vilsack may well reverse the dwindling prospects for rural America through conservation agriculture and renewable energy. With swift action on climate change, the new administration can reboot rural regions left to decay over the past half-century.

While rural dwellers don’t necessarily think the government is here to help, they do support clean water and wildlife habitat. They fret over rivers made toxic from agriculture runoff. These isolated places are shrinking in population and prospects as companies consolidate and everyone ages. Buena Vista, my county in Iowa, has half as many farmers as it did 50 years ago, and packinghouse pay is half as much in real terms.

Mr. Vilsack, who served two terms as Iowa’s Democratic governor, hopes to convert the skeptics back home. In a recent interview with me, he pledged to use his full executive authority to meet the Biden administration’s goal of a net-zero-carbon economy by 2050. It is not lost on Mr. Biden or Mr. Vilsack that former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue — to cover for former President Donald Trump’s trade wars with Mexico, Canada and China, which beat down U.S. commodity markets — tapped the Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Credit Corporation to lard at least $50 billion in subsidies on farmers and agribusinesses.

Mr. Vilsack suggested he will use the same authority to spur a transformation of agriculture and food systems founded on sustainability and climate resiliency.

Few took carbon sequestration seriously during his previous tenure, a time when “resilient agriculture” had not yet entered the vernacular. But the fundamental conversation in the corridors of power and along gravel roads has changed. Extreme weather, a pandemic jolt to a food processing system so highly consolidated that it became brittle and a public broadly acknowledging climate change will do that.

Mr. Vilsack is changing along with the conversation. “Agriculture writ large is ready for this, more than before,” he told me.

He has also sought reconciliation with Black farmers and pledged to root out “inherent legacy barriers” at the Agriculture Department. He has promised to revive an antitrust task force working with the Justice Department, which was abandoned by the Trump administration. Republican and Democratic politicians have been calling for more vigorous enforcement, as just a few meatpackers control most of our pork, beef and poultry.

A former small-town mayor, Mr. Vilsack knows where rural America’s future lies. His evangelization of regenerative agriculture — using diverse crop rotations, grass plantings and grazing with dramatically lower fertilizer and herbicide use — is an affront to the seed and chemical conglomerates, and he will need all the Republican help he can get. This type of agriculture sequesters carbon, prevents pollution and increases farm profit. By nurturing a more diverse economy revolving around regional food systems, it could help rebuild rural communities, something the Farm Bureau on the right and the Farmers Union on the left agree on.

Biomass stoking hydrogen fuel production or electricity could supplant the 40 percent of corn acres planted for ethanol — and farmers could fetch five times as much. Technical jobs in wind and solar energy can replace fracking jobs in West Virginia and Ohio. New energy jobs in Iowa could quadruple in a decade, paying twice as much as the packinghouse. These are the conclusions of a team of Princeton energy experts, who describe what it will take to get to net-zero emissions. Mr. Biden has embraced these dazzling opportunities with his $2 trillion climate plan.

Looking ahead two years to the new farm bill, Mr. Vilsack said the Agriculture Department will help create carbon markets in which polluters essentially pay farmers to plant grass or trees instead of corn or soybeans. He will use his authority to greatly expand payments to farmers for conservation stewardship.

In our recent conversation, Mr. Vilsack noted that agribusiness — including companies like General Mills, Kellogg and Cargill — is changing its attitude about climate, adopting more sustainable practices and pledging to go chemical free.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, he added, supports the production of hemp, one of the most efficient energy crops. Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, fancies himself the father of the wind energy tax credit and will support renewable energy expansion. Redirecting investment in battery production from Asia to the United States could put Youngstown, Ohio, a shadow of its auto-industry heyday, back on the map.

Farmers lost tens of thousands of acres to flooding wrought by extreme weather in 2019. Mr. Biden witnessed it with his own eyes. A derecho with winds of up to 140 miles per hour swept through Iowa and Illinois last summer, destroying more than 14 million acres of crops. Now scientists with the Goddard Space Institute report that the Great Plains and Southwest are in the throes of a multidecade drought unlike anything else seen in more than a millennium. Farmers get it.

And so do Mr. Biden and Mr. Vilsack. They understand there is no time to waste.

Art Cullen, the editor of The Storm Lake Times in northwestern Iowa, is the author of “Storm Lake: Change, Resilience, and Hope in America’s Heartland.”