Members of the Obama Administration have embarked on a "listening tour" in rural America this summer, but let's hope the visits involve more than listening. This is a moment for the Administration's top officials to engage farmers, ranchers and rural residents in a robust exchange of ideas about their role in a new American economy.
That role seems as obvious as it is dynamic. The "clean energy economy" President Obama advocates can revitalize the nation's long-neglected rural communities. Many of them can become the epicenters of sustainable energy production in the U.S., as well as our principal providers of carbon sequestration services.
In his climate and energy policies, Obama is sowing the seeds for that new era of rural prosperity, but it will be up to rural America to bring in the harvest.
Federal ethanol subsidies seem to be getting all the attention from the farm lobby, but ethanol feedstocks (make that cellulosic) are just one of the new crops that will power America in the years ahead. In parts of the United States, landowners already are making thousands of dollars a year in lease payments to host wind turbines on their fields. Each turbine occupies a very small footprint, which allows farmers and ranchers to continue cropping or grazing the land. That makes wind a very lucrative crop as well as a source of new property tax revenues for rural communities. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory:
"There is a bright spot on the rural economic development horizon: wind. In fact, achieving the goals of the U.S. Department of Energy's Wind Powering America program during the next 20 years will create $60 billion in capital investment in rural America, provide $1.2 billion in new income for farmers and rural landowners, and create 80,000 new jobs..."
Wind energy offers rural landowners a new cash crop. Although leasing arrangements vary widely, royalties are typically around $2,000 per year for a 750-kilowatt wind turbine or 2% to 3% of the project's gross revenues. Given typical wind turbine spacing requirements, a 250-acre farm could increase annual farm income by $14,000 per year, or more than $55 per acre. In a good year, that same plot of land might yield $90 worth of corn, $40 worth of wheat, and $5 worth of beef." (Blogger's note: This report and its numbers are 5 years old. I've heard of lease payments of $5,000 per turbine.)
More than a billion dollars in new income is not loose change; it's change farmers and rural communities can believe in.
Solar farms can be next, along with locally owned bio-refineries that turn agricultural and urban wastes into fuel and a variety of other consumer products. By harvesting methane gas from animal feedlots and local landfills, farms and rural communities can obtain renewable energy while preventing one of the most potent of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere. (Methane's heat-trapping properties are more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.)
Tomorrow's farms will earn new income from dedicated energy crops such as switchgrass and other perennials and from non-food crops that can be turned into a wide variety of products now obtained from petroleum, ranging from cosmetics to road de-icers and biodegradable plastic bags.
In a robust carbon market, farmers also will earn money by managing their woodlands for carbon sequestration and by using low-carbon tillage methods.
Meantime, farmers must begin practicing sustainable agriculture to restore and preserve our soils, water and forests. This is an area rich for discussion as Obama's team makes its rural visits. It means fundamental changes in farm policy, including federal subsidies that encourage crop diversity. It implies much more careful management of fertilizers to keep them out of waterways and much better management of nitrogen, itself a greenhouse gas. It means more efficient irrigation, the use of less-thirsty crops and the preservation of wetlands to help protect water supplies.
National farm policy must begin to resolve the conflicts between food, fiber and energy crops, as well as water conflicts between rural, urban and traditional energy production.
While members of the farm team are on the road, they might take along a copy of the Presidential Climate Action Plan's chapter on sustainable agriculture. It details several changes in federal policy that would help rural farms and communities lead America's transition to a new energy economy - changes such as focusing rural electrification and economic development subsidies to capitalize rural renewable energy development and extending electric transmission lines to rural areas with good wind and solar resources.
Before it heads back to Washington, the Obama team should pay a visit to the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and listen to Wes Jackson. Wes is one of the country's apostles of sustainable agriculture. He proposes that we have a forward-looking 50-year farm bill rather than making policy by tweaking the law every five years in reauthorization bills.
The Land Institute has held its own "listening tours" from coast to coast with farmers and experts in sustainable agriculture. Jackson and the Institute propose fundamental, systemic change in national farm policy. As the Institute puts it:
"Our vision is predicated on the need to end the ecological damage to agricultural land associated with grain production - damages such as soil erosion, poisoning by pesticides and biodiversity loss. The most cost-effective way to do so and stay fed is the perennialized the landscape. The transition of agriculture from an extractive to a renewable economy in the foreseeable future can now be realistically imagined...We have little doubt that we can make the agricultural transition faster than the adjustments imposed upon us by climate change and the end of the fossil fuel era."
That brings up two other huge farm issues: global climate change and national energy policy. Agriculture will be one of the sectors most affected by changes in precipitation and temperatures and by the spread of pests that affect crop production. It also is heavily dependent today on fossil fuels whose prices will rise when Congress puts a price on carbon.
If Obama's farm team is ready to talk about these issues - the pressing as well as the promising - it wasn't evident in the Administration's announcement of the rural listening tour. In a sound bite that could only have been written by a staffer with no license for boldness, the White House quoted President Obama explaining the listening tour this way: "A healthy American economy depends on a prosperous rural America."
That may turn out to be the most obvious understatement of Obama's first year in office. In fact, our ability to build and sustain a healthy economy has everything to do with the health of our soils, woodlands and water supplies and with the renewable energy resources available in rural America. As every good farmer knows, you can't achieve prosperity if you leave good crops unharvested (in this case solar, wind and biomass energy), if you deplete the natural resources on which your livelihood depends, or if you fail to plan for the weather (in this case, climate change).
Rural America and the Obama team have a lot to talk about. The team should indeed listen on this tour, but on all of these important topics it shouldn't be shy about starting the conversation.