Our little gauge near the house has told us, in small increments, that since the year began we’ve had three and one-half inches of rain and eight inches of snow. The moisture has come pretty much in equal parts, an evenness that seems odd, given the usual whimsy and caprice of Kansas weather.
This hardly compares with, say, the Dakotas and the upper Plains, but the moisture is notable in mid-Kansas, which in recent years has come into spring dry as marble.
This year, standing water in some Kansas fields appeared as large ponds. And last year seemed moist – 38 inches of rain, with 12 inches of that in October-December. For gardeners and lawn keepers, a delightful way to open the growing season. For farmers with fields too wet to plant, or feed lots turned to bog, a different matter.
Imagine, then, what faces the farmers and ranchers under mud and water in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri. When great rivers like the Mississippi and Missouri flood, the water rolls in a heave; it turns massive barns to match sticks; family homes are drowned; huge trees are like straw in the waters’ way, fence lines disappear with the soil, man and animal pitched under, washed away. When the water subsides, landscapes once promising and productive seem barren and cruel.
For a moment, a sympathetic nation saw the pictures, read the stories, witnessed the speeches and press conferences. Then, like the waters, everyone moved on, distracted by something else, and agriculture again became the great American afterthought.\
A couple of Iowans, Robert Leonard, a radio news director, and Matt Russell, a farmer and director of an interfaith advocacy group, have taken the challenges for American agriculture beyond quick politics and into the long term.
In mid-March, they outlined some fundamentals in an essay for The New York Times, headlined “What Democrats need to know to win in Rural America.”
The target is slightly off. This is a matter for Republicans, too – at least moderate ones – and anyone else who is serious about giving new life to the community of America’s farms and farm states..
“A strong … platform with realistic plans for rural America,” say Leonard and Russell, “would focus on four themes: demography, infrastructure, farm sustainability, and environmental practices that can help combat climate change.”
Today’s farms are mostly larger, complex entities. The family farm, as in Old McDonald’s, is gone and it isn’t coming back. Low commodity prices and Trump tariffs have only aggravated the waning of rural America. Young people leave, communities wither and more small towns suffer or die. Hospitals, banks, businesses close or move. We know this story.
Leonard and Russell propose ways to turn it around. Among them:
Opportunity zones –
They begin by exploring a federal plan to involve local and state government; this would identify “opportunity zones”. Infrastructure improvements, technology upgrades, housing programs and other aid would be directed to communities with growth potential.
“Those communities are often the ones that have a thriving hospital and an institution of higher learning,” they say.
Often, but not always. Rural communities can have a broad sweep. Few of their hospitals are thriving, but with help, offer promise. The same holds for serious technical schools, where learning is high as well.
Rural infrastructure holds opportunity for jobs and development. Among the needs are investment in farm-to-market roads, the lock and dam systems on those great heartland rivers, and the long-neglected development of rural broadband.
Manufacturing and other jobs lead to a pattern of labor flow common in rural American; workers drive many miles to jobs in farm cities. “If 40 employees can gather in a dirt lot at a highway intersection in the half-hour before shift change and travel together on a bus to work and back, that’s good for the environment and for the rural pocketbook,” Leonard and Russell said.
Why not get smart about this? Workers are needed for manufacturers and farm operations. The administration’s current policy demonizes America’s immigrant work force.
The Iowa Business Council (executives from Iowa’s 23 largest employers) has said the immigration program should be reformed to help expand the economy. “Iowa is not alone,” the authors said. ” Washington State doesn’t want apples rotting on the ground for lack of pickers; Wisconsin worries about small dairy operations desperate for people to milk the cows.”
Kansas can relate to the worries and needs.
‘Factory farms’ –
To most citizens in farm country, demonizing “Big Ag” and factory farms is only “liberal white noise,” say Leonard and Russell. Most farms in Kansas and elsewhere are family-owned. They may be integrated into the larger system, but they are not big agricultural corporations. Most need that integration to survive.
There is much to criticize in American agriculture policy. The markets are captive – 70 to 90 percent – to the four largest pork packers, beef packers, soybean crushers and wet corn processors. Five companies (ADM, Bunge, Cargill, Glencore, and Dreyfus) control the global grain trade.
Congress must be made to realize that competition in the agricultural economy is in the best interest of every constituent, poor and rich, rural and urban and in-between.
Compensation for conservation –
This brings us headlong into global warming, and farmers can lead the effort toward change. Solar and wind power have taken root in the Great Plains. So has a process called “carbon sequestration” to keep carbon out of the atmosphere. These corrective farming practices include planting cover crops, leaving organic matter in fields after harvest, rotating in additional kinds of crops and managing grazing.
“Current farm policy pits conservation efforts against maximizing production,” say Russell and Leonard. “Policy that stabilizes the farm economy costs pennies per meal; so would compensating farmers for environmental services. This would help all farmers, as well as improve our air, water and soil quality. Current farm economics and policy seem to favor those who skip conservation and punish those who try to be corrective.
We once climbed out of the Dust Bowl with government help; the Soil Conservation Service, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, Extension Service, and the Resettlement Administration were among the innovations. Why not innovate again, to prevent a Dust Planet?