Trump Is Abandoning Red State Farmers. A Green New Deal Can Help Save Them | Opinion

On June 11, President Donald Trump traveled to Iowa to reiterate his commitment to what has been one of his most reliable constituencies. "Under my administration," he declared, "we will always protect and defend our great American patriot farmer. Always."

But this commitment is looking more questionable by the day. The nation's agricultural producers are reeling from Trump's trade war with China, which has driven Beijing to slow or halt purchases of soybeans and other commodities.

The president's growing penchant for unpredictable tariff threats means continuing uncertainty for U.S. agriculture. By signing off on megamergers and encouraging multinational conglomerates to dominate markets and supply chains, the administration has put small and medium-sized farms in particular hardship. Farmers now get less than 15 cents per every dollar that Americans spend on food — the lowest amount since the federal government began tracking. There's been a rapid rise in Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies. Rates of suicide among farmers have reached record levels. Rural poverty is rampant.

Progressive Democrats are making a play for rural communities' support, putting forward some of the most substantial and innovative agriculture policies in memory. In March, Senator Elizabeth Warren presented a far-reaching plan to reverse the consolidation of power in agriculture and secure new rights for small farmers. Senator Bernie Sanders recently followed up with broader set of proposals for "Roosevelt-style trustbusting laws" to stop the monopolization of markets as well as new funding for land conservation and rural economic development.

But some of the most significant help for small farmers in mostly red states could come from what's regarded as the Democrats' progressive-flank policy initiative: the Green New Deal. The agricultural component of a comprehensive climate plan is likely to include both substantial payments and technical help to farmers who engage in sustainable-farming practices. At the same time, it will probably include measures to promote fair pricing and challenge consolidated power in agribusiness. This set of policies could be a game changer for both rural economies and the environment.

According to research published in the journal Science, improved agricultural practices that sequester carbon in soil could offset 15 percent of global emissions from fossil fuels. According to the Rodale Institute, a respected 70-year-old research nonprofit focused on organic agriculture, the potential is much higher. To meet emissions goals, Green New Deal legislation is expected to enable farmers to play a leading role in addressing climate change—and ensure that they're financially compensated for their contributions.

The idea is to rely on nature's own processes to capture carbon. Plants take in the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere as they grow leaves and stems. They pump it down into the earth through their roots and provide it to microorganisms living as part of an exchange for nutrients. As plants decompose, microbes and fungi break down the organic matter, depositing further carbon in the soil. The more carbon these natural processes insert into the ground, the less heat-trapping gas we have to contend with in our atmosphere. Farmers and ranchers—the people who know the land and work the land—are best equipped to maximize these opportunities to sequester carbon and minimize warming.

Green New Deal legislation can aim to provide technical assistance to help farmers maximize soil health and employ other climate-friendly practices, measuring how much carbon they're able to keep out of the atmosphere, and then paying a rate per ton for what's securely stored in the ground. It's a way to accelerate climate-friendly farming, while providing a meaningful new source of income to agricultural communities. Crucially, farmers who employ such practices are generally able to seize other benefits: reducing soil erosion, resisting drought, managing risks of extreme weather, and ultimately growing higher-value, more nutrient-dense food.

States are already testing this approach. California's Healthy Soils initiative is entering its third year, and New York last year passed a pilot program as part of its state budget. Other initiatives, like the Texas-based Soil Value Exchange, aim to provide technical support and income to ranchers through innovative financing mechanisms.

Donald Trump China tariffs trade war
A farmer harvests soybeans on October 19 in Owings, Maryland. President Donald Trump's ongoing trade war with China is frustrating farmers. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Beyond payments for soil sequestration, governments can offer tax incentives and other support to farmers for efforts to reduce emissions, including the super-potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, a byproduct of fertilizers. Green New Deal legislation should aim to employ rural Americans in both research and implementation on a range of climate-friendly land management strategies, including woodland regeneration and healthy grazing practices. These strategies—paired with antitrust policies for agriculture and reforms to serve the interests of small farmers in commodity pricing—could help bring economic renewal to struggling rural communities.

Green agriculture policy can ultimately help break through the longstanding gridlock on federal climate policy. The reason is simple: Federal investments to pay farmers for climate-friendly practices could mean significant transfers of wealth to red states. While a Republican senator from Idaho or Nebraska might shun most elements of a Green New Deal, it's a tougher proposition for that senator to oppose an agricultural payment program that disproportionately benefits his constituents.

There's precedent for this kind of green-rural grand bargain. Consider Germany's experience. Thirty years ago, members of the country's Green Party and Social Democratic Party were only able to pass the energy reforms that laid the groundwork for German climate leadership because they won the support of agrarian conservatives in the country's south. The rural conservatives had a financial interest in going along with the policy reforms around distributed energy generation because they wanted to earn income by selling their small-scale hydroelectric power from their lands to the grid. It was all about the economics.

By bolstering rural livelihoods, the rural elements of a Green New Deal could help transform the politics of climate. While Trump is leaving farmers to contend with unpredictable trade wars and predatory corporate monopolies, progressives can offer a serious plan to improve rural livelihoods—boosting income, cutting emissions, enriching our food system, building resilience, and helping keep family farmers on their lands.

Justin Talbot Zorn is senior adviser at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and founder of Astrea Strategies, a public interest consultancy focused on economic and environmental solutions. He served as legislative director for three members of Congress.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​​