Opinion: If Biden wants farmers to join his climate fight, he needs a better sales pitch

When it comes to climate change, American farmers are pulled, politically, in two directions. The right expects them to defend the status quo, which means anti-regulation and deep skepticism about man-made global warming. The left wants them to embrace a contradiction: farmers are at once partly to blame for climate change and also its helpless victims.

Faced with two disagreeable choices for how to engage with the reality of climate change, farmers have overwhelmingly chosen the skepticism that aligns with a conservative, anti-regulatory worldview. Like it or not, the right’s rhetoric is empowering: American farmers feed the world through their hard work and rugged individualism—just leave them alone and let them do their job. Republicans have farm country’s back, the thinking goes, while Democrats just want to scare them with apocalyptic scenarios and then smother them in regulations.

What farmers haven’t been offered, until now, is a robust invitation to be part of the solution to the climate problem. Biden’s Build Back Better plan, with its promise of incentives to growers to invest in ecosystem services, provides that invitation. The president is betting the political farm that American farmers and ranchers are ready to help solve this global crisis.

We think that a critical mass of growers across the nation, from row crop farmers in Iowa to apple growers in Washington State, are indeed ready to join this effort. But the invitation is just the first step. Now Biden and his team have to sell their strategy to farm country, and that will require that they abandon the feckless messaging that Democrats have used for too long, and develop a sales pitch that is more empowering than the GOP’s.

Because for the majority of farmers, the question of whether to accept Biden’s invitation remains a practical calculus: How can I make money and survive? Farm and ranch incentives — subsidies, loans, crop insurance and prices — still encourage farmers to choose maximum production of a narrow set of livestock and commodity crops over the more complex demands of changing what they do on the land to reduce emissions and sequester carbon.

Biden has vowed to change the incentives, to make it easier for more farmers to take action. But he also must prevent his political opponents from framing his invitation to farmers as a ploy to undermine modern agriculture and abandon the mission to feed the world. The idea is to keep feeding the world, but to do it in ways that conserve the land and make it more resilient and sustainable. His message should focus on farmers and ranchers as leaders, the ones who the nation depends on to figure out the best ways to combine environmental stewardship with the production of commodities as the essential outputs for American agriculture.

Innovating and problem-solving are core parts of the American farmer’s identity. Farmers are always tweaking their operations — in terms of scale, technology, genetics, business models — and they wake up every morning with a long and growing list of problems to solve. If the Biden administration wants farmers to add the climate crisis to that list, it will have to acknowledge how farmers see themselves.

Secretary Tom Vilsack is Team Biden’s frontman, the official leading the effort to get buy-in from farmers, ranchers and other rural leaders on the administration’s ideas. So far, he seems to still be finding his footing. Part of the reason is that Republicans have been feeding farmers misinformation. This has kept Vilsack on the defensive and forced him to reassure farmers that, for instance, the 30 by 30 proposal (to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands by 2030) isn’t a land grab, and that the administration supports both biofuels and electric vehicles.

As a result, Vilsack’s case for Build Back Better so far amounts to, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to change things that much.”

Consider his letter introducing the USDA’s 90-Day Progress Report on its Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Strategy: “I am confident that in partnership with our country’s agriculture and forestry stakeholders, we can develop a strategy that is a win-win for our producers in building climate resilience, mitigating emissions, and conserving our natural resources.”

No urgent call to action, no challenge to farmers to lead and innovate. Just the vague prospect of a top-down “win” delivered by government and agricultural “stakeholders.”

Contrast that with the tone from Kansas Republican Sen. Roger Marshall in attacking the Biden plan the day before. “This initiative is further proof of the clear disconnect between the left and those who feed, fuel and clothe the world,” said Marshall in a release. “Farmers and ranchers are the original conservationists, and no one knows what’s best for the land better than those who work on it day in and day out. The best thing the federal government can do is trust the environmental judgment of farmers and ranchers and let them do what they do best: steward the land.”

This is pure identity politics as misdirection, the kind of rhetorical weaponry Republicans have been deploying for decades.

Biden shouldn’t expect farmers and rural Americans to embrace his bigger vision for climate action if Democrats fail to develop a message that speaks to the identity of farmers, ranchers and rural Americans. If they sound like they’re just tinkering around the edges, they won’t get either the political or the policy job done. Democrats need to go big on the idea that Build Back Better is a direct investment in those American farmers and ranchers who are ready to take the lead on climate action. Every press release, every statement, should reinforce that message and be willing to punch back against anyone who suggests farmers aren’t up to the task.

Success demands disrupting both the political status quo and the vested interests of powerful agribusinesses. Empowering farmers to lead the way on climate mitigation efforts does both. It’s too early to tell how far Team Biden is willing to go to change the Democratic playbook in rural America, but the clock is ticking.

Matt Russell is a co-owner of Coyote Run Farm, near Lacona, Iowa. Robert Leonard is the author of “Deep Midwest: Midwestern Explorations.”