Bad Times for the American Farmer: Climate, Trade Conflict a One-Two Punch

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Bad Times for the American Farmer: Climate, Trade Conflict a One-Two Punch

This year, there are new concerns about how crops will fare overall, due to a combination of factors, some natural, and others man-made: some even seem to have been made mostly by one man!

First there’s the climate reality and the conditions that hamper plant development through large swathes of American farmland: a story in Ohio’s Country Journal June 24 cited research work conducted by NOAA  that found emerging conditions projected for central U.S. areas, including “cold and wetness; delayed development; millions prevented planting acres; varied weed problems; (and) disease from wet conditions.”

“There’s a strong connection at the (land) surface level in summer between wetter and cooler along with dry and warm,” noted USDA Midwest Climate Hub Director Dennis Todey. “When soils and surfaces are wet, it leads to evaporative cooling (interferes with prolonged heat buildup in the Midwest). That’s a big player.”

In places like Deerborn, Illinois, farmers have seen millions of acres unseeded this year due to flooding and other problems. Ag sales teams are listening for phones that have quit ringing.

The moribund ag sector also suffers from a global trade problem that started with a pair of Presidential tweets blasting the Chinese a couple of months ago, prior to the growing season really taking off. American farmers in general depend on exports, and new tariffs undertaken by the U.S. White House are making it even harder for farmers to have a good year. Oddly, there didn’t seem to be any push for these tariffs at the cabinet level, in ag think tanks or anywhere else, and Trump himself did not refer to others when announcing the austere trade changes, instead proudly declaring: “I am a tariff man!”

In fact, both farmers and big retailers are pleading for trade relief, but the White is blazing ahead, on the supposition that they can somehow bully one of our biggest trading partners into giving us concessions, in the way that an aggressive child might try to threaten Santa Claus around late November.

With the Chinese digging in, it’s clear that the simple gambit has failed, and American farmers are reaping the consequences in down markets.

As if that weren’t enough, U.S. farmers could also stand to benefit from a true accounting of carbon footprints, if the United States valued the environment enough to put those systems in place. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.)

The idea of “regenerative farming,” outlined in E&E News and elsewhere, could enable farmers to profit from soil management, which captures carbon while aiding in the development of crops.

“According to EPA, soil management accounted for roughly half of the agriculture sector’s greenhouse gas budget in 2016, which reached 562.2 metric tons of CO2 equivalent, or 8.6% of all U.S. emissions,” writes ag reporter Daniel Cusick. “Among other things, (regenerative farming approaches) seek to undo the loss of billions of tons of topsoil caused by the repetitive tilling of farm fields; to curb massive inputs of fertilizers, nitrogen, pesticides and other chemicals; and perhaps most importantly, to reverse the soil carbon cycle, where instead of absorbing and storing hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide, tilled soil becomes a net emitter of CO2.”

Citing previous innovations like methane reduction and fostering crop diversity, Cusick writes about how farmers could harness their operations to profit quite a bit from “green enterprise.”

“We call it tending to the hidden half of nature,” said Elizabeth Whitlow, executive director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance, a California-based nonprofit formed in 2018 by the Rodale Institute, Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia Inc. said as quoted.

Whatever you call it – it’s not paying off yet, mainly because, instead of valuing sustainable practices, the U.S. has taken the mantle of one of the most backward first-world countries on the plant by refusing to incentivize carbon controls, with prominent politicians (and energy lobbyists) instead insisting that there’s no problem with the ice caps because it still snows in winter.

“Save the American farmer and the environment at the same time!”

The rallying cry rings on deaf ears. We as a nation have not done our homework or understood the challenges that we face. Many farmers do – but to their consumer base, the low-grade products of big ag conglomerates will do just fine – until they start to experience the final effects, for both themselves and the planet.

An op-ed published in Truthout illustrates the problem this way:

“Both mainstream parties advocate the neoliberal, free-trade policies that the ever more aggregated seed, food and chemical corporations have imposed upon the U.S. since World War II to the detriment of family-scale farms all over the world. The dairy farmers who got through the winter eating cereal and the new farmers who are eagerly starting out are in urgent need of radical change.”

One of the points made here is that farmers aren’t now set up to profit from initial capital outlays – because of market forces against them, they are already stretched thin. They need help – and they’re just not sure if they will get it from an unresponsive set of federal agencies. The technocrats have been replaced by corrupt sycophants who don’t really appear to be doing their jobs at all, but instead, milking their federal jobs for free airfare and perks.

When you bow your head at dinner tonight, pray for the small farmer – beset by market headwinds, unfunded mandates and an unfair playing field, they are living on cereal – while Cargill and ADM shareholders rake in the dough.

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