Speak Your Piece: Rural Policy’s Dog Days

After a respite, Timothy Collins returns to the Yonder to find that rural America is washing away. Soil erosion, a “stinker” of a farm bill and the ethanol debate show that the Dog Days of rural policy may be perpetually upon us.

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Some good things are happening out yonder, but the news of rural America contains far too many reminders of the perpetual Dog Days of U.S. rural policy. That’s the conclusion I draw after a short break from the Daily Yonder because of a major project deadline followed by a much-needed vacation. 

First, the good news. It is delightful to see in the Des Moines Register that:

  • An agricultural education teacher has won a national award.
  • We now have standards for labeling food as gluten-free.
  • An Iowa State professor is optimistic about a fungus that could help alleviate hunger.
  • A biofuels firm made a solid profit in the last quarter.
  • Biotech firms may be making an effort to be more open about genetically modified crops with an informational website.
  • The RAGBRAI tour (short for Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), with its thousands of participants on bicycles and in communities, was again a success.

Timothy Collins
But then, there are those persistent Dog Days of politics and economics.

For example, energy dynamics are complicated, and ethanol is problematic. Since Congress passed its renewable fuels goals in 2007, times have changed. Cars are more efficient, and people are driving fewer miles. Now, according to the Register, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under pressure from the American Petroleum Institute, the restaurant industry and cattle groups, is considering whether to reduce the overall amount of ethanol to be blended into gasoline in 2014.

This is, as Hardy used to say to Laurel, a fine mess. A simple solution would be to use a 15% mixture of ethanol in fuel, instead of the current 10%. The courts have said this would be fine. But some people say the added water in the alcohol damages engines. That’s debatable. Another fix would be to produce more E85, an 85% ethanol blend that some vehicles can burn. Meanwhile, the oil industry has told Congress that it opposes ethanol and other alternative fuels, according to the Argus Leader. No friendly competition in this power struggle. No pun intended.

The oil industry’s argument against corn ethanol is that it raises food prices for humans and livestock growers. That makes sense, but that cannot be taken out of the context of a whole series of local and global food-energy-environment relationships that include rising energy prices. Even so, where’s the justice in rising food prices, especially for the poor here and in developing countries? Can you feel my mixed emotions? Read on. The next paragraph is less ambiguous.

The Dog Days may have reached a nadir when the House of Representatives produced a stinker of a farm bill that severed food stamps and the nutrition title from the legislation while providing financial aid for farmers that many conservative groups considered too costly, according to Politico.

Things could, and did, get worse. House Republican leaders now want to cut food stamp funding by $4 billion, according to the Register. That’s double the amount contained in a version of the farm bill that the House rejected in June. The Senate version of that bill sought a $400-million reduction in food stamps. Now, that’s generous.

But, hold on, there are even uglier headlines.  

Higher corn prices over the past several years undoubtedly have been good for individual growers. But the implications of the widespread response to growing demand for corn have raised other questions besides the immediate one of higher food prices. According to the Register, a recent report from the Environmental Working Group says farmers plowed up about 7.2 million acres of highly erodible ground, including wetlands, between 2008 and 2012. My guess is that these numbers are underestimated, because they focus on fragile land. They don’t seem to account for the windbreaks, buffer strips and smaller patches of woods that have been knocked down all over the place in our part of the once prairie.

Timothy Collins
Topsoil eroded from a field near Bushnell, Illinois, rests in a drainage ditch.
Meanwhile, Iowa’s Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI), labeled a “liberal advocacy group” by the Register, has complained about working sessions where the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the federal invited members of the Farm Bureau and livestock groups to discuss stream protection from farm run off. According to the Register, the farm groups were invited to the meetings because they were stakeholders affected by the proposed regulations. It didn’t matter that the citizens group, which initiated the lawsuit to make the reluctant state comply with existing federal clean water laws, was left out of the meetings. Incidentally, and perhaps ironically, CCI’s spokesman was a farmer.

From all of the mucky news that I missed during my little hiatus, a few observations emerge:

  • Ethanol is only one component of our energy dynamics, which remain dominated by fossilized energy firms that are addicted to burning dangerous, irreplaceable hydrocarbons. Even so, ethanol can never improve our chances for sustainability unless its supply chain is green from planting and harvesting to production to end use. We need to be prudent about all forms of energy.
  • Two-plus million farmers need better strategies to conserve soil and water. They need more technical assistance, not less. The demand to grow corn to make ethanol is eroding the Midwest’s precious soil just so we can have an alternative fuel for transportation. That’s pretty shortsighted. We simply cannot afford the short-run focus that soil erosion be damned, not dammed.
  • The 48 million poor people who rely on food stamps are lost in the heat and haze of high food prices accompanied by a brutal chorus of senseless and insensitive bickering in Washington. I am reminded of an old hymn, Where Charity and Love Prevail. The Dog Days endure for this surly Congress that encourages and perpetuates hunger and injustice across this rich land. Both political parties are guilty.

Whatever the good news from rural America, and it is out there, we are living in a period of meanness to each other and the environment. Washington is truly a place of misguided leadership that has entirely lost its moral, economic, and environmental compass.

To borrow from Lincoln, we need a renewed sense of malice toward none and charity toward everything and everyone.

Believe it or not, we are the government. Powerless and frustrated as we may feel sometimes, we must make it and ourselves much better than we are now.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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