STORM LAKE, Iowa – President Donald Trump’s trade war with China is doing plenty of damage to farmers in this region, but it is also shining a harsh light on an agriculture industry that has been heading for a reckoning since the early 1970s.
President Richard Nixon’s detente with China started U.S. farmers on the path to becoming Beijing’s agribusiness partners, ripping up the countryside and radically expanding pork operations to feed millions on the other side of the world.
Nearly half a century later, the results are plain to see. Iowa has about half the farmers it once did, with smaller producers squeezed out by the behemoths. The soil is eroding at alarming rates. Fertilizer pours into waterways, eventually draining into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a dead zone of oxygen deprivation the size of New Jersey. Rural areas are depopulating.
For decades, the markets have been telling us that we’re growing too much corn and soybeans, but we wouldn’t listen. The painful interruption in business as usual caused by the trade war presents an opportunity to rethink U.S. farming’s dependence on Chinese buyers.
One serious, sensible step that would help set markets right and aid the environment: idling a third of Iowa’s acres from corn and soy production.
“We’ve got all our eggs in one basket,” John Norris, former chief of staff to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in the Obama administration, told me recently. “This is a wake-up call to change agriculture. We’re subsidizing cheap grain and cheap pork for China, and we keep farmers just afloat. The only ones benefiting are the traders, the seed and chemical companies, and the Chinese.”
If the trade war doesn’t get people’s attention in farm country, the changing climate should. The Midwest was inundated by flooding this spring, again, as entire towns and tens of thousands of acres of cropland along the Missouri River were washed away. Not even half of Iowa’s corn is planted – a job that should have been finished weeks ago. Research from NASA and land-grant universities suggests that our corn yields could drop by half in the next 50 years because of climate change. Food production is imperiled unless we reroute.
How would idling the land from producing soybeans and corn work? Instead of writing a $15 billion check for trade-disaster aid – as Trump promised this month, after a $12 billion aid infusion in the electorally crucial Midwest last year – the government could put the money toward paying those farmers to capture carbon from the air and bury it in the soil by planting grass or small grains such as rye in rotation with corn.
The mechanism exists through the Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays farmers for conservation practices on working lands. It is funded at $12 billion over the next five years – after suffering a $5 billion cut by Congress in the 2018 farm bill.
“Farmers always farm the program. They chase the money,” Norris said. “So let’s farm a different program, one that actually benefits the land. When you add carbon to the soil, you improve yields. Farmers can make more money by building the soil through crop rotations and grazing.”
Let cattle roam on green hills again. Rural communities can recover if the air and water are clean and if small beef processors can reemerge, providing jobs to depopulating areas. It would help if Trump ended the steel tariffs that are driving up the cost of tractors and cutting into profits at John Deere, Caterpillar and Case IH.
The breadbasket of the Midwest can be protected by shifting funding from disaster aid and crop insurance to programs that actually benefit the public – and farmers specifically. Better yet if there were a carbon market that rewarded farmers, ranchers and foresters, and could keep rural communities whole with new jobs in wind and solar.
The United States is at an inflection point brought by a trade war and climate change. We should seek free trade through patience and steady diplomacy, but we shouldn’t bet the farm on agriculture exports. A better goal: establishing a network of diverse, resilient producers who provide global food security while reducing climate impacts. We are doing the opposite.