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Opinion | Joe Biden and Tom Vilsack’s Big Plan to Save Rural America

A former small-town mayor, Mr. Vilsack knows where rural America’s future lies. His evangelization of regenerative agriculture — using diverse crop rotations, grass plantings and grazing with dramatically lower fertilizer and herbicide use — is an affront to the seed and chemical conglomerates, and he will need all the Republican help he can get. This type of agriculture sequesters carbon, prevents pollution and increases farm profit. By nurturing a more diverse economy revolving around regional food systems, it could help rebuild rural communities, something the Farm Bureau on the right and the Farmers Union on the left agree on.

Biomass stoking hydrogen fuel production or electricity could supplant the 40 percent of corn acres planted for ethanol — and farmers could fetch five times as much. Technical jobs in wind and solar energy can replace fracking jobs in West Virginia and Ohio. New energy jobs in Iowa could quadruple in a decade, paying twice as much as the packinghouse. These are the conclusions of a team of Princeton energy experts, who describe what it will take to get to net-zero emissions. Mr. Biden has embraced these dazzling opportunities with his $2 trillion climate plan.

Looking ahead two years to the new farm bill, Mr. Vilsack said the Agriculture Department will help create carbon markets in which polluters essentially pay farmers to plant grass or trees instead of corn or soybeans. He will use his authority to greatly expand payments to farmers for conservation stewardship.

In our recent conversation, Mr. Vilsack noted that agribusiness — including companies like General Mills, Kellogg and Cargill — is changing its attitude about climate, adopting more sustainable practices and pledging to go chemical free.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, he added, supports the production of hemp, one of the most efficient energy crops. Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, fancies himself the father of the wind energy tax credit and will support renewable energy expansion. Redirecting investment in battery production from Asia to the United States could put Youngstown, Ohio, a shadow of its auto-industry heyday, back on the map.

Farmers lost tens of thousands of acres to flooding wrought by extreme weather in 2019. Mr. Biden witnessed it with his own eyes. A derecho with winds of up to 140 miles per hour swept through Iowa and Illinois last summer, destroying more than 14 million acres of crops. Now scientists with the Goddard Space Institute report that the Great Plains and Southwest are in the throes of a multidecade drought unlike anything else seen in more than a millennium. Farmers get it.

And so do Mr. Biden and Mr. Vilsack. They understand there is no time to waste.

Art Cullen, the editor of The Storm Lake Times in northwestern Iowa, is the author of “Storm Lake: Change, Resilience, and Hope in America’s Heartland.”

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