Biden speech highlights Minnesota’s farming crossroads

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

President Biden’s Wednesday visit to Minnesota brought him to a Northfield hog farm, where a group of Minnesotans – including MEP Executive Director Steve Morse – gathered to hear the President speak about his administration’s agenda for rural America. 

Minnesota is a good place to talk about the future of farm country. The state has the fifth-largest agricultural economy in the nation, and the Department of Employment and Economic Development estimates that the sector supports 388,134 jobs. 

At the same time, rural Minnesota is in trouble. Water pollution has been on the rise for decades and largely isn’t improving, leaving lakes, streams, and wells across the state ever more contaminated by fertilizer and other chemicals. Climate change is making farming a more volatile industry, alternately threatening drought and flooding rather than moderate conditions. 

Farmland has become increasingly consolidated among fewer owners, making it hard for small and midsized farms to compete. And the social and economic ripple effects of these crises hit small, rural communities the hardest, though they don’t stop there.

So it was with a sense of urgency, perhaps, that many in the audience listened to President Biden’s remarks on rural America. The President noted – correctly, in our view – that consolidation is part of the problem “over the past four decades, we’ve lost over 400,000 farms in America…that’s an area roughly equal to the size of Minnesota, North and South Dakota combined.” 

The President then laid out his Administration’s investments in addressing farm country’s challenges:

  • $20 billion in Inflation Reduction Act funds for various climate-friendly farming practices, including cover crops, nutrient management, prescribed grazing, and soil carbon storage. These investments will help make farming cleaner, especially in terms of water pollution. But the implementation will be key: short-term carbon storage offers dubious benefit to climate action if it’s not done consistently. There is much work yet to be done to address the climate impacts of agriculture. 
  • $1 billion – spent earlier in the President’s term – for small and midsized meat processors. Consolidation in the meat industry has led to a few companies dominating the market, reducing their accountability and imposing a top-down model on animal agriculture. MEP, along with fellow farming advocates, has supported investments in these smaller processors at the state level.
  • $1 billion in new funding for rural infrastructure, including electric and water utilities. Upgraded water systems are vital to providing rural communities with drinkable water and protecting those downstream from pollution. And improved electrical transmission will help increase reliability and support the transition to clean energy.
  • $145 million in new funding for farmers and rural communities to install clean energy technologies, such as solar panels. Solar and wind energy – both of which can coexist with crops – are proving to be a financial boon for many rural communities.
  • $274 million in new funding for high-speed internet in rural areas. High-speed internet is vital to economic opportunity for small communities, especially those left in the lurch when local industries move or shut down.

MEP applauds these investments, but we also took note of the President’s mention of supporting “homegrown biofuels” that will contribute $3 billion to Minnesota’s economy. Minnesota’s history with biofuels, unfortunately, has created some serious problems.

While corn used to produce ethanol brings in plenty of revenue for the state, growing it brings vast quantities of fertilizer and pesticides to the landscape. It’s the number one driver of nutrient pollution and pollinator decline in the state. And while ethanol has been touted as a “cleaner” alternative to petroleum, it’s a questionable climate benefit due to the emissions generated by its production and processing. Minnesota’s fields and communities would do better if we diversified our cropping choices.

That’s not to say that biofuels are always the boogeyman, but the type of crop matters. Scientists at the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative are developing cleaner alternatives. Cover crops like pennycress and winter camelina can be the best of both worlds: maintaining and enriching the soil, protecting water quality, and reducing pollution while producing oil that can be used for climate-friendly diesel and jet fuel.

Overall, we’re encouraged by the President’s focus on a greener future for rural America. As we work to solve the environmental crises and face the worsening impacts of climate change, it’s vital that no community is left behind.

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