Singing a different tune on ag conservation

December 8, 2022 8:00 am

A farm near Rippey features two of Iowa’s top crops, corn and wind turbines, in October 2019. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Cutting in corporate America on climate policy appears to be clearing a path for a rational farm bill discussion as the new Congress organizes.

House Republican leaders are making sympathetic comments about a strong conservation title in the five-year farm bill that is supposed to be written next year.

Incoming House Ag Committee Chair Rep. G.T. Thompson, R-Pa., said he has “been leaning into the climate discussion.” Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has been steering talks on “climate-friendly” agriculture and renewable energy for two years that has Republicans like Sen. John Thune of South Dakota on board.

The Senate Agriculture Committee is one of the last bipartisan institutions in the Capitol. Republican House members have received word from farmers pressed by higher fertilizer and chemical costs that talk of paying them for environmental services is not so crazy. They’re eager for alternatives endorsed by the supply chain. And, Ag Committee corporate funders have become vested in the Biden administration’s “climate-smart” ag initiative that promises billions in subsidies for carbon trading, soil health, pipelines and sequestration, biogas and manure digesters, and more.

Republican members told Politico they’re especially interested in water quality and quantity as a mega drought grips the Great Plains and West.

They’re not so interested in talking about climate change as they are extreme weather, resiliency and reduced chemical costs through less tillage and integrated management. It’s all about carrots and not sticks, and you have to be careful with your terminology — steer clear of “climate change.”

Agriculture and food security can be a place where something gets done in gridlocked government. And, these are areas where the public would like to see something get done that benefits everyone.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has proven adept at navigating the corporate corridors. It was no accident he was called in to help fend off a pre-election railroad strike, considering his connections to Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway, the Union Pacific Railroad and MidAmerican Energy. Renewable energy will be at the center of the $500 billion farm bill discussion (not to mention whatever happens on major energy bills).

Meat companies will run pilot programs on methane. Grain traders will receive incentive to get farmers to grow cover crops in winter. Crop insurance will sweeten cover crop subsidies. Corn ethanol will be protected. Hog houses will go solar with a spiff from Uncle Sam.

In return, Democrats in control of the Senate will insist that Republicans lay off food programs.

It’s sausage, not steak.

At least the Freedom Caucus might be restrained from holding up the farm bill for two years over conservation and food security funding, as happened before. We might see enhancement of the Conservation Stewardship Program (which is way over-subscribed) and the Conservation Reserve Program. That was a real battle in the last farm bill.

Corporations also are sensitive to talk on left and right about antitrust. This is an area where Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. John Tester, Democrats, can find common cause with Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Randy Feenstra on the Republican side. Pharmaceutical maker Bayer is more likely to take an active role in helping farmers with “regenerative” agriculture if it avoids hearings on consolidated power over food.

A lot of good, and a lot of waste, can come from it. Some cover crops certainly are better than none. If it takes crop insurance to subsidize it, that’s a small price. We need more flexibility with CRP. Helping farmers build soil over time, without an immediate return, is worth the public investment in cleaner and more abundant water. That’s what Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., thinks. And that is an entirely different tone than the last farm bill talks five years ago. The conversation actually has changed. Corporations still control the terms of the discussion. That’s a dictate of American politics. It’s also true that MidAmerican Energy is enthusiastic about renewable energy and Cargill is encouraging cover crops.

That’s a point where some progress can be made in the next farm bill. This is fairly easy stuff so long as you can keep everyone on board. Sure, it’s greenwashing. Sure, we’ll burn bushels of cash on ill-thought schemes. It’s also a real step forward if we’re planting more grass along the river and between the rows. You go, Dusty.

Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times Pilot, where this column first appeared, as well as Art Cullen’s Notebook on Substack. It is republished here as part of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

Editor’s note: Please consider subscribing to the collaborative and its member writers to support their work.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Art Cullen
Art Cullen

Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times Pilot, where this column appears. Please consider a subscription to the Times Pilot or a tax-deductible donation to the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation. He is a member of the Iowa Writers' Collective. Subscribe to Art Cullen's Notebook here.