Biden Can Still Win Rural Votes

Millions of voters in farm country are being ignored by both parties

Photo: Ollo/E+/Getty Images

Between 2009 and 2017, while Tom Vilsack was head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 30 percent of Wisconsin’s dairy farms went out of business. So why has he become Joe Biden’s main surrogate in farm country?

Between 2004 and 2016, dairy exports more than quadrupled. That might sound like it’s good for farmers, but if you’re interested in the survival of local dairies — which provide the economic base of some rural communities and are much more inclined to care for the land — it’s exactly the wrong strategy. Exports benefit global agribusinesses and monopoly dairy cooperatives because they help expand world markets. But that new money bypasses U.S. farmers: Exports don’t raise the price of milk, which has stayed so low that only industrial operations can survive.

“In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” President Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, told a group of Wisconsin farmers last year. In fact, no administration since FDR’s has supported small farmers, and, with Vilsack, Biden’s would be no exception. This isn’t by accident but by design.

No administration since FDR’s has supported small farmers, and, with Vilsack, Biden’s would be no exception.

Faster than you can say “revolving door,” Vilsack left office a week early to work as a lobbyist for the U.S. Dairy Export Council, earning about a million dollars pushing the same policies that bankrupted thousands of dairy farms to begin with. So it’s no surprise that dairy communities in Wisconsin might not be filled with hope to see Tom Vilsack’s face on “rural roundtable” virtual calls. “I’m not sure either candidate is really going to care as to whether or not dairy farmers survive,” Pennsylvania dairy farmer Mike Eby said.

Biden’s decision to campaign with Vilsack and Co. — who reek of the corporate-friendly policies that looted rural America’s economy in the first place — is a huge mistake. Best case, the strategy leaves Democratic votes on the table. Worst case, it could cost Biden the White House.

Biden’s decision to campaign with Vilsack and Co. — who reek of the corporate-friendly policies that looted rural America’s economy in the first place — is a huge mistake.

Biden’s rural platform promises more Vilsack-style policy based on a simple assumption: if agriculture exports grow, so will rural jobs and well-being. The plan promises to fund new technology with which to pursue these exports, stating that ”our farmers need new technologies to compete on world markets.” (I don’t know of any advocacy group demanding this). Next, it calls to “promote ethanol and the next generation of biofuels,” a corporate project that will preserve slumping corn prices, and expand conservation programs (good) with the promise that farmers will be able to draw income from carbon markets (which, as I’ve written, is a bad, agribusiness-led solution). Overall, it’s more of the same doctrine we’ve had since World War II, one that’s cost rural communities farms, jobs, and faith in politics.

Farmers themselves — disproportionately white, male, and landowning — are among the last voters Biden should be chasing. According to a September 2 poll, their support for Trump is an ironclad 75 percent, in part due to the billions paid to the wealthiest of them during his presidency. Competing for these votes, where Biden’s rural messaging seems to be aimed, is somewhere between an uphill battle and a huge waste of time.

Farmers themselves — disproportionately white, male, and landowning — are among the last voters Biden should be chasing.

But most rural Americans have nothing to gain from corporate-friendly policy, especially those who aren’t on inherited land. As my friend Bryce Oates points out, for every large, commodity-focused farm, there is another that sells to restaurants, local markets, and food hubs, and another that hardly farms but collects conservation payments from USDA. In the last generation, half of cattle ranchers, 90 percent of hog farms, and 80 percent of dairy farms have gone under. But they haven’t all left, and many of those who have stayed have seen air and water fouled by the construction of industrial farms and pipelines. As that base has consolidated, so have schools, main streets, and rural hospitals. Immigrants prevent rural populations from dwindling, and often work in slaughterhouses and other processing plants or on industrial farms, weathering horrible injustices during both crisis and “normal” times. Few of these are “farmers,” but those who vote do so in “farm country.”

These untold millions — there are about 4.5 million combined rural residents of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa — are being ignored by both parties. As long as corporations determine rural platforms for Democrats, rural economies will continue to decline and Democrats will continue to lose.

These untold millions — there are about 4.5 million combined rural residents of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa — are being ignored by both parties.

Food and agriculture policy strategist Jake Davis warns that if Biden fails to adopt a new vision for agriculture and rural communities that inspires hope, the backlash could ripple into congressional elections in 2022 and ruin any hope of a truly game-changing Farm Bill, which will be up for renegotiation in 2023. It’s a looming problem that’s far larger than one election. “This isn’t a failing of Vice President Biden himself. This is a failing of the Democrats over a couple of decades.”

The pivot Democrats need to make is simple: Take on corporate power. “Rural communities are suffering, and they know that consolidation of farms — and agribusiness in general — has hurt them,” former Wisconsin dairy farmer Jim Goodman told me. He’s been advocating for structural reform in the farm system for decades, currently as president of National Family Farm Coalition and board member of Midwest Environmental Advocates and Family Farm Defenders.

Polling from RuralOrganizing.org bears this out: Two-thirds of rural, battleground voters feel that “USDA programs too often benefit big corporations and big farms instead of small farms, small businesses and rural Americans.” A majority want to see more oversight of factory farms, and less than 40 percent oppose an outright ban on them.

People want to see economic opportunities in their hometowns. They want their kids to stick around if they want to, and most of those kids would stay if they could. Monopolies, whether Walmart, Monsanto, Tyson, Cargill, or Dollar General, have swallowed those economic opportunities. “We have poll after poll that says, rural Americans are consistently frustrated with the overreach of corporate monopoly power,” Davis told me. “And I think that, quite honestly, unites rural Americans of all stripes.”

Beginning in the spring of 2019, advocates and candidates took on the issue of antitrust and corporate power in forums and bold plans, sending a charge of populist energy into rural, Democratic circles. The plans are simple: Agribusiness monopolies are choking rural communities and should be broken up; dairy farms should be paid a price on milk that matches their cost of production; rural communities deserve clean water; climate change is a dire crisis; government should subsidize letting the land rest, instead of exhausting it; communities should have a say in new factory farms; in general, multinational corporations are not our friends; and rural problems did not begin with Trump. If they had, Trump would not have been elected in the first place.

Eby told me that months ago, he felt invigorated by the crush of populist rhetoric that opened the Democratic primary, mentioning the Sanders and Warren plans to enforce antitrust laws, regulate agribusiness, and establish programs to manage supply and prevent overproduction. “I don’t think that we should depend on the rest of the world to soak up our excess production,” Goodman said, echoing a growing sentiment among farmers of all types that the status quo is not designed to keep them in business, and years of trade policy have only made that problem worse.

Even though there’s little chance of changing Vilsack’s mind, progressive rural groups are fighting to get his ear in order to tell him that Biden stands a better chance of winning if they dump the pro-export, business-friendly policies of the past. Many of these groups have been leading from the ground level since the ’80s, sustained through the years by highly engaged activists in Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, and many other farm-focused states. Their agitation has earned press coverage — this exposé from The American Prospect and a recent spot from Politico — but as of yet, “they’re not being listened to in any sort of broader strategy,” Davis, who’s in the loop, told me.

Even though there’s little chance of changing Vilsack’s mind, progressive rural groups are fighting to get his ear in order to tell him that Biden stands a better chance of winning if they dump the pro-export, business-friendly policies of the past.

Now that runaway free trade and corporate welfare are correctly seen as shams, the partisan turf war over what comes next has already begun. Trump’s anti-free-trade rhetoric was so appealing to many voters that they chose to overlook his repugnant racism. Ascendant conservative senators like Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton will package anti-globalist politics in more polished and dangerous iterations post-Trump. Sanders and Warren offer Democrats a path to reinvent their rural campaigning. Whether it’s this route they take or another, their imperative is to change — fast.

“I disagree with a lot of Biden’s policies,” Goodman said. “But I think this is a time when the most important thing is getting anyone else in, really.” He’s optimistic about Biden’s seeming openness to listening to progressive opinions.

Should the Democrats in charge bother to look, they’d find those opinions are all over the places labeled “Trump country.” When they do start listening, they can show that they understand by not only abandoning bad policies, but also changing the guard and appointing a new generation of USDA leadership. Rural America would do a lot better, and so would Democrats at all levels of government.

Chicago-based reporter and writer focused on agriculture and food. Reach out: charlie [at] tom [dot] org more at charliemitchell.org

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