If you ask Iowa farmer Robb Ewoldt about the federal dollars he’s received over the past few years to help make his land more sustainable, it’s clear he’s a big fan.
“It works really well on our operation,” says Ewoldt, who grows corn and soybeans on “just under 2,000 acres” near Davenport, Iowa. “We see huge benefits in conservation, water quality and carbon sequestration.”
He has been involved with the Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP, for about eight years now. The program aims to help farmers improve yields, increase the resilience of their fields to extreme weather conditions, and maintain and improve their conservation systems, such as no-till and cover crops.
On his farm at that time, “soil health [has] improved to a point where we see a yield advantage in our farming practices. … We can see these yields increasing year on year. This is where the real benefit comes in,” he says.
Government conservation programs aim to strengthen farmers’ response to climate change, as Ewoldt and others like him are forced to deal with worsening droughts on the one hand, and rainfall and unprecedented flooding on the other hand. But even with billions more in federal aid on the way, there is no sign that the massive injection of cash from the Democrats’ recently passed Inflation Reduction Act will reshape politics in the staunchly Republican state of Iowa, nor will it move the dial for farmers in other rural areas. where the GOP maintains a seemingly irreversible foothold.
Farmers will get billions more for conservation
CSP was signed into law as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, but the Biden administration’s Cut Inflation Act, passed by Democrats in a direct party-line vote, added 20 more to it. billions of dollars and other conservation programs aimed specifically at helping farmers combat the effects of climate change.
“That’s a big chunk of funding compared to what they’ve had in recent years,” says Cathy Day, climate policy coordinator with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. She says that in the past the programs have been so stretched that “we typically have between 3 and 4 times more farmers applying than actually getting contracts.”
The programs can have a huge impact on farmers and the environment, says Sara Nicholas, policy strategist at Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit. She cites a 2015 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council showing that “for every additional 1% of organic matter that enters the soil, which many of the practices in these CSP programs attempt to do, these soils can pick up an additional 20,000 gallons of rain per acre.”
“If you think of a flood-prone state like Pennsylvania…it would make all the difference if you could capture that much extra rainfall before it ran off fields, into streams, cascading and destroying bridges, culverts and infrastructure,” she says.
Ewoldt, who accepts climate change and says farmers “need to do things to mitigate it”, acknowledges that his farming practices have “enabled my soil to retain more water during drought conditions”.
The additional government funding is a good thing, he says. But Ewoldt’s congresswoman, Mariannette Miller-Meeks, sided with her fellow Republicans in unanimously rejecting the Cut Inflation Act. “Now is not the time to pass a $740 billion spending bill, much less a bill filled with partisan priorities,” she said in a statement.
Ewoldt plans to vote for her anyway.
“I know her,” he said. “And there are other things that come into play besides the economy.”
More Farmers Oppose GOP on Climate
Ewoldt’s attitude towards climate change reflects a growing trend among farmers. A survey published in 2021 indicates that around 80% of farmers now believe that climate change is happening. That’s a huge change from just eight years ago, when a four-state survey indicated most did not accept the concept of climate change and did not believe its impact would reduce their agricultural yields.
The period in which this change occurred coincides with the world’s seven warmest years on record, as well as climate-fueled fires, floods and heat waves in the United States.
Even so, as a group, Farmers have remained steadfast in their support for Republicans, despite the party’s history of being closely associated with denying the scientific consensus on climate change. (Although among Republican voters in general, there has been a significant shift from just a decade ago).
Farmers have also been staunch supporters of former President Donald Trump, despite a trade war with Beijing that has seen agricultural exports to China plummet by more than 60%, according to the US International Trade Administration. And this summer, Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee have already called for cutting commodity and conservation programs in the new Farm Bill, which will be introduced in Congress next year.
Ewoldt, who calls himself a lifelong Republican, voted twice for Trump even though the years 2017 to 2019 were “miserable for agricultural production” largely because of the then president’s trade war. Ahead of the 2020 election, he told NPR that Trump represented “the devil that I know and not the devil that I don’t know.”
Tim Dufault, 62, works 1,600 acres in northwestern Minnesota near the town of Crookston. He has seen a lot of changes in the state’s agricultural fields over the past few decades that he attributes to climate change.
“It’s hard to deny that the world is getting warmer,” he says.
The mix of cultures in his corner of the state is very different from what it was when he started farming four decades ago. “There is practically no barley, sunflowers, [or] potatoes because it’s hotter and wetter and it’s harder to get a good quality crop,” he says.
“In the meantime, warm season crops like soybeans and corn have moved into this area. So, you know, that really tells the story,” says Dufault, who describes himself as “a moderate, but mostly a Democrat “.
Trade often trumps climate concerns
South Dakota Farm Bureau President Scott VanderWal is among those who see the climate — or at least the weather — changing, but disagree with the scientific consensus on the cause. “The climate has changed since the creation of the Earth and we have already gone through cycles,” he says.
VanderWal says Trump’s trade dispute with China has hurt South Dakota farmers, but now his frustration with President Biden is about not overstepping his predecessor’s policies.
In 2020, Phase 1 of a new trade deal with China came into effect, with Beijing agreeing to buy $80 billion worth of US agricultural products in the first year.
VanderWal wonders what’s next. “We asked them what future [is]”, he says. “It’s been almost two years now, and we’ve heard almost nothing about international trade.”
Democrats face a tall order winning rural votes
Given rural voting patterns, which heavily favor Republicans in more rural states, moving farmers to the Blue Column may seem impossible for Democrats.
It’s a task made even more difficult by Trump’s unchallenged dominance over his party.
“Rural America has been predominantly Republican for a few generations,” says David Hopkins, professor of political science at Boston College. “But Trump did significantly better.”
Many rural counties in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that were 60-40 Republicans “suddenly were 70-30 Republicans or more” for Trump, he says.
Even so, Democrats don’t need to win over a majority of farmers. Instead, “if they can reduce those margins [and] regaining some of the ground lost over the past 10 years in rural areas, which could actually be significant in some of these battleground states,” he says.
Isaac Wright, co-founder of the Rural Voter Institute, a progressive research firm, says to get there, Democrats need a lesson in how to talk to voters outside of their urban base.
“Our values are not in question,” he insists. “It’s the way we communicate and often the way we fail to communicate.”
“On the one hand, I would downplay the use of the term ‘climate change,'” says Wright. “I would talk about how [these programs] help build our farming communities, especially our small farms, with investments in stewardship. And for long-term investments in clean air and clean water.”
Timothy Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa, says it’s also important for Democrats to realize that simply worrying about economic issues won’t be enough.
“Yes, a farmer is going to be concerned about crop prices,” he says. “But … [farmers] I also care about immigration or what happens in schools with my children.”
“They don’t necessarily vote on just one issue, even though that issue seems to be quite important, because it’s about how they make a living.”
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