I have some really promising news to relate this week. My friend Rondi Lightmark sent a video of a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee. They were discussing Climate Change and the Agriculture and Forestry Sectors. It was 4 ½ hours long, and although it sounds pretty humdrum, it was more and more fascinating to me, and I ended up listening to the whole thing.
If you have ever listened to a Congressional hearing, you know that the Democrats and Republicans on the committee take turns grilling the witnesses. Nowadays, it is hard to tell if they are talking about the same planet much less agreeing about anything. The witnesses as well usually represent one side or the other, each congressperson working the witnesses that they expect to champion their point of view. This hearing was refreshingly different. Both sides were talking about the same thing! The main subject was regenerative agriculture and, although there was some avoidance, no Republicans were fussing and fuming about it. Just two years ago, when I first became aware of regenerative farming, it seemed that it was below everybody’s radar. I had to keep watching.
The witnesses in the hearing were across the spectrum but none were necessarily opposed to regenerative farming. I was especially pleased to see Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer with twenty years’ experience pioneering regenerative farming. He is a foremost authority with the hard evidence of success to back him up. The “conservative” witness was Zippy Duvall, a Georgia farmer and president of the Farm Bureau Federation. Despite my expectations, he was fair and not dismissive of regenerative farming. The others were two climatologists, and a tech-loving expert on climate change mitigation. It was clear that they wouldn’t see eye to eye on everything, but all were supportive, or at least not dismissive, of regenerative farming. I was surprised that there were no corporate witnesses. Maybe they declined an invitation.
Here are the dynamics of the situation. Farmers usually have conservative cultural values and an independent streak. They especially detest urban Democratic “elitists” telling them what to do—that’s why they are predominantly Republicans. At the same time, their profession is tied to the health and well-being of the environment. They can see from one year to the next what works and what doesn’t. It turned out that most of the congressmembers were either farmers, from farming families, or representing heavily agricultural districts. Coming from a place of knowledge made their acceptance of regenerative farming all the more impressive. There was certainly a difference of viewpoint between Democrats and Republicans, each side stressing the aspects that were most in line with their party, but both sides were on board.
Since many farmers were already experimenting with regenerative techniques on their own,
this is a perfect situation where non-binding compliance (the kind that Republicans like) with technical help and financial incentives could reap big rewards. Conservatives hate regulations because they usually increase business costs. In most cases, the regulations are in place to discourage bad practices. In this case the government oversight and incentives are meant to reward good practices which also happen to save costs and increase profits for the farmer. You can expect that politicians would be falling all over each other trying to claim credit for a program like that.
It also happens that regenerative farming does not necessarily benefit from scaling up. This gives smaller family farmers some breathing room. Right now, many farmers have to take out a loan to buy the seed and chemicals they need to put in a crop. The bank conditions the loan on their following corporate practices to the letter. When they sell their harvest, there is often only one buyer and they dictate the selling price. Some farmers don’t even own the land and are basically tenant farmers who have to bear the risk of a bad harvest while the fruits of their labor go to the corporate owners. For some, the only profit they see is a government subsidy. Regenerative farming cuts those initial costs way back and is an opportunity for farmers to regain independence, respect, and an ample livelihood. If those corporate parasites eventually get cut out of the business, there will be little love lost.
Here, also, is an opportunity for Democrats to ingratiate themselves to farmers in that vast rural Republican hinterlands. I would expect that the Biden administration would jump at the chance to sponsor a highly popular program with considerable bipartisan support. It might even lead to finding other common ground between the sides.
Don’t count corporations out. They are trying to greenwash this by coming up with something that looks good but plays in their favor. I would expect that they will still have some role to play, but (I hope) not a dominant one. The important thing is that there is a good chance that regenerative farming could become the new norm. That means sequestering carbon, saving the soil, more wildlife habitat, more prosperous independent farmers, better wealth distribution, and better food. Not bad for a single program.