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What the Green New Deal Could Mean for Iowa

Ahead of the caucus, climate advocates are arguing that 2020's most hotly debated environmental proposal can be good for small farmers.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Since the idea of a wide-reaching plan to stimulate the economy, combat inequality, and curb climate change entered the national spotlight in 2018, Fox News and the Republican Party have suggested it might be at odds with rural America. Conservative pundits have cited its association with a democratic socialist from New York City, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or claimed leftists want to take away the nation’s hamburgers to eliminate cow farts. The Green New Deal is now one of the most widely recognized policies under debate in the Democratic presidential primaries. But many voters still aren’t sure what a Green New Deal is, much less what it’ll mean for their own lives and their communities. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have each released policy platforms laying out plans for climate-smart agricultural production, incorporating long-standing demands from farmers’ movements. But these haven’t exactly captured the popular imagination.

Ahead of the Iowa Caucus, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the Sunrise Movement are trying to fill the gap, quite literally sketching out what life in this next Decade of the Green New Deal, as they’ve called it, will look like for Iowans and millions of others whose livelihoods revolve around agriculture.  

In a video scheduled to be released Monday morning, ahead of the caucus, the groups imagine that decade starting with a massive farm bill that includes fair price guarantees on crops, akin to fair wage laws. “I could finally afford to grow fresh food for my own town and still make a living,” a farmer character tells viewers from the not-too-distant future. Support from the federal government allows her and other farmers to pass their operations down to a new and more diverse generation of farmers, who’ll own the seeds they plant and enjoy the benefits of both Medicare for All and high-speed rail. This new era is counterposed against the “dark ages” of monopolized corporate agriculture, when most of Iowa’s corn was fed to pigs in factories and people blamed their troubles on immigrant families.

But the vision goes beyond farming. In new public schools—where cafeterias are stocked with locally grown produce—the video imagines indigenous Iowans teaching the history of how they “have been doing green jobs on this land for centuries,” and a federal job guarantee provides zero-carbon work in everything from the arts to eldercare. An illustration shows a worker in a wheelchair planting carbon-absorbing prairie grass. It’s not a perfect world: There are political battles and climate shocks to deal with. A big flood in 2025 wipes out much of the progress that has been made, and, in its wake, the wealthy try to regain political ground. “Once we started winning,” a woman’s voice narrates, “the corporate kings got even more ruthless.” To protect the Green New Deal and push it further, “workers went on strike, farmers refused to plant, and students took to the streets.” Those displaced by worsening weather and rising seas around the country could come to Iowa and be welcomed: “There’s plenty of work to do, plenty of food to share. I like inviting the whole neighborhood over on Sunday,” the same woman’s voice says. “Our whole town feels like home.”


The clip is a work of advocacy, to be sure. But it’s also an attempt to figure out what a good Green New Deal would actually look like for more agriculturally focused parts of the U.S. Inspired by a video released last spring by The Intercept, in which Ocasio-Cortez narrates life after the Green New Deal, the clip—drenched in bright watercolors—is the product of a community visioning session convened in November by Iowa CCI and the Sunrise Movement, inviting family farmers from Iowa and across the midwest, union and youth climate activists, policy wonks, and more to imagine a new kind of Iowa together. (Sunrise and the Iowa CCI Action Fund have both endorsed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries after lengthy endorsement processes.)

Shawn Sebastian, who helped design and facilitate the session in November, grew up in Iowa and moved back to his hometown of Ames in 2018. Since then, he’s traveled around the state working with Iowa CCI and Sunrise to build support for the Green New Deal, now as the senior strategist for People’s Action’s initiative People and Planet First, in rural America.

To date, the Green New Deal has been imagined largely as a set of policies geared toward a numerical goal of net-zero emissions. Wonks and many activists tend to talk about it as such, haggling over what set of policies is best suited to reach that goal and by when. Talk of energy efficiency standards and fuel mixes isn’t exactly thrilling to a general audience, though, and climate hawks have never had much luck getting people excited about them. Sebastian likened this conundrum to a box of brownies. “You don’t put the ingredients on the front of the box. When you look at brownie mix in the grocery store, you don’t see a list of ingredients,” he told me. “What you’re seeing is a completed, luscious, moist brownie. I think as policy people, maybe the left in general, we tend to list out the ingredients and say, ‘We need x and y and z.’ But we don’t put the whole picture together of what we’re fighting for.” The Green New Deal, that is, needs to show voters the brownies, not just the flour and cocoa powder.

“The average family isn’t going to be spending hours reading about Green New Deal or climate theory,” says Mona Abhrari, a Sunrise organizer from Missouri who participated in the workshop and has worked for the group in Iowa since September. “They are focused on getting food on the table, or keeping up with their two or three jobs to pay the bills. If they see that that’s not the world they have to live in, that instills a sense of hope, and connection, and solidarity.”

That was a big part of the goal at November’s session. After walking through the policies behind a rural Green New Deal—including many that groups like Iowa CCI, founded in 1975, have pushed for decades—Sebastian says he and his co-facilitators asked people to imagine: “If all of this were to be put into place, what would it look like right when it happens? Five years on? Ten years on?” Participants chose roles for themselves in the transition, ranging from cooperative farm owner to train engineer to prairie rehabilitation specialist. Inhabiting those roles, the group then navigated a series of scenarios that might play out in the next decade. In one, a catastrophic flood wipes out crops for miles. Another scenario involved the federal government soliciting proposals for a massive infrastructure project. How do you get to consensus and decide among competing interests?

Such a brainstorming session might seem a bit pie in the sky to critics. But there’s precedent for it—in the original New Deal.


In the 1930s, the country was gripped not just by a financial crisis but also by an ecological one: the Dust Bowl. New Deal reforms prompted a revolution in soil conservation practices and land use, and supply management was implemented to stem overproduction. New and retrofitted agencies sought to save the farm sector while spurring broader-based economic development in rural communities.

Much of that, especially in the late 1930s through the early 1940s, was done through local planning and education programs administered by the federal government. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration’s Program Study and Discussion unit, for instance, trained tens of thousands of local discussion leaders to convene farmers to discuss a wide range of issues related to agricultural and public policy. An estimated three million people eventually took part. Wide-ranging, four-day schools of philosophy, as Department of Agriculture Undersecretary M.L. Wilson put it, provided “an orientation or background to the phenomenon of democracy in rural society,” in which participants worked through “fundamental problems of human and national life.” The goal of those who designed these programs wasn’t just to provide relief to rural communities, but to democratize governing by providing people with tools to design policy themselves.

At 80, Larry Ginter, a longtime organizer who participated in November’s visioning session, isn’t old enough to remember the original New Deal. He does remember what it did for his hometown. “On Saturday night in Rhodes, you could not find a place to park. It was that fruitful,” Ginter recalls of the people who flocked downtown for a night out. “We had a bank, two gas stations, a lumber yard, a movie theater, a grocery store,” he said, before listing off several more local amenities, including carnivals in the summer and regular concerts at the bank. Things started changing with the Agricultural Act of 1954. That marked the beginning of the end for the New Deal’s parity pricing system, in which farmers were guaranteed a price for their product that would cover the cost of production. As parity was phased out, bigger farms, and eventually corporate producers, gained the advantage. “They told us to get big or get out. They told us the price of land was gonna rise so, ‘Don’t worry about it, go ahead and purchase this ground.’ I knew it wasn’t going to work, because the price of grain wasn’t keeping up with inflation and the price of livestock,” Ginter said.

This came to a head during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, the worst recession for Iowa since the Great Depression. When Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker spiked interest rates in 1979, the manageable debt farmers routinely took out became unbearable as commodity prices dropped. Between 1978 and 1984, farm debt doubled. As the crisis settled in, then President Ronald Reagan declared, empathetically, that he hoped to “keep the grain and export the farmers.” By the mid-1980s, there were just 2.2 million farms left, down from 6.8 million in 1935. The results rippled through rural communities, clearing out towns as farmers left the land, and starving factories and local tax bases. 

Today, farming can be prohibitively expensive, and profits are rare. Barb Kalbach, a fourth-generation family farmer and organizer who participated in the November visioning session, has been farming for 49 years and estimates that she’s made a profit in only 10 of them. Just 20 percent of farmers now control 70 percent of farmland. To survive, family farms that used to grow a mix of grains and crops and raise hogs have gotten more and more specialized, with companies like Smithfield Farm moving in and driving local farmers out of business.

The farmers who have been drawn to Iowa CCI and Sunrise worry that an agricultural system dominated by big corporations is unsustainable on virtually every front. Getting into farming requires taking on massive amounts of debt, and 44 percent of Iowa agriculture producers struggled to pay the bills incurred by land, seeds, and equipment. A single new tractor can cost $250,000, not counting the cost of the specialized technicians now needed to fix computer systems when those act up. The USDA has projected that farm debt nationwide will have climbed to $416 billion over the course of 2019, both a record high and a massive disincentive for young farmers entering the business. As farmers retire, Kalbach worries the sheer expense of farming will mean there’s no one to take their place, and more and more farms will be gobbled up by large corporations that pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

These dynamics have important implications for both Iowa politics and environmental policy more generally. Kalbach hopes a Green New Deal can make farming a viable profession again while bringing it more in line with the planet’s needs. Iowa right now is losing topsoil at 16 times the natural replacement rate, and the problem nationally costs $44 billion each year. In the last year, record flooding inundated 100,000 acres of farmland throughout the state. Farming exists in delicate balance with the environment—a balance both climate change and corporate agriculture, with its reliance on monocropping and intense tilling, threaten.

Both Kalbach and Ginter are dogged Bernie Sanders supporters, with Kalbach now a caucus precinct captain for Sanders and a co-chair of his Iowa campaign. Contrary to the stereotype of democratic socialism being the province of young millennial urbanites, Ginter was first drawn to it amid the agricultural crises of the 1980s. Capitalism, he argues, is “an extractive system, and it takes everything but never wants to put anything back. You cannot fight climate change with a system that takes but never puts anything back.” 

Bringing a Green New Deal to Iowa will be an uphill battle: Trump won the state by nearly 10 points in 2016. And even if a Democrat wins in November, the vision mapped out by the Iowa CCI–Sunrise video is far from guaranteed. Both Sunrise and Iowa CCI, however, say that they are playing the long game. Sunrise plans to hold more visioning sessions around the country. Iowa CCI has been pushing for more egalitarian agricultural communities for over 40 years and has seen plenty of presidential hopefuls come and go. The point of this work and of Monday’s caucus, organizers I spoke with said, is to cultivate a vision of the Green New Deal that works for their state—work they say will continue no matter who’s in the White House.