After rural voters helped President Trump pull out victories in top Midwest swing states, progressive leaders were faced with a choice. Democratic candidates could cut their losses and double down on big-city issues, or they could revitalize their relationship with rural America. Fortunately, they seem to be making the right choice, and Vice President Biden is making a determined effort to listen to farmers and prioritize the concerns of rural families who are tired of seeing smaller communities treated as an afterthought by either party. Given the past four years, that focus is more important than ever, and it’s shining a light on how rural families play an outsized role in addressing some of our greatest challenges, including climate change.
In Minnesota, farmers have long been the tip of the spear in the battle for a healthy planet. We are keepers of the earth, and perhaps no other group in America is more sensitive to unpredictable and destructive weather patterns that have become the norm in a changing climate.
Just a few months ago, massive windstorms devastated millions of acres of crops, flattened grain bins, and stole economic opportunity from hardworking families across the Northern Plains. Few farmers had any financial cushion left to rebuild, due to long-running trade wars, the ongoing pandemic, and abusive Environmental Protection Agency decisions that put oil ahead of renewable biofuels made from farm crops. We’re not alone. In states like California, wildfires continue to burn out of control, turning vast regions of farmland into a charred wasteland.
Working together, we could do so much more. Minnesota’s track record shows us how. Under Governor Tim Walz, we’ve led the charge in decarbonizing the transportation sector. As co-chair of the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition, he established the Governor’s Council on Biofuels and oversaw the Department of Transportation’s embrace of higher biofuel blends to slash emissions. As a result, we’ve been able to displace more petroleum in the fuel mix via lower-cost, lower-emissions ethanol blends, like E15.
That progress has only been eclipsed by the innovations being adopted by Minnesota farmers, who are making use of the latest sustainable farming practices to improve soil health, reduce the need for fertilizer, and drive up yields year after year without the need for more cropland.
With strong climate policies and reliable agricultural markets for biofuels, those innovations will only accelerate, keeping farmers at the epicenter of nationwide efforts to sequester carbon in the soil and halt the rise of global temperatures. As an added bonus, federal data now shows that bio-based fuels made from those crops slash emissions by 39 to 43 percent compared to gasoline, even after accounting for the energy and land used for raising soybeans and corn. By 2020, lifecycle emissions from ethanol may fall to less than a third of gasoline.
In Minnesota, we’re ahead of the curve. According to regulators overseeing California’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard, biofuels imported from Minnesota plants have carbon scores well below the national average. In fact, biofuels are responsible for more than two-thirds of all the carbon reductions achieved under California’s program since 2011.
Biofuels aren’t the only example of rural communities fueling the green revolution in coastal states. Our cropland is dotted with windmills, solar panels, and carbon capture technologies (often at ethanol plants) that will be vital to meeting the nation’s climate goals.
By embracing policies that that will expand agricultural markets and incentivize innovation, the green jobs of the future will help to revitalize rural communities that have been left behind for far too long. Democratic candidates should keep that in mind as they work to reconnect with the heartland and build a truly national mandate for change.
Doug Peterson is the immediate past president of the Minnesota Farmers Union and a former Minnesota legislator.