Editor’s Note: Beto O’Rourke is running for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. He is a former US Representative from Texas. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Two things were unavoidable as I visited Sargent Farm outside of Pacific Junction in southwest Iowa earlier this month. The first was the smell and sight of rotting soybeans, which were spilling out of busted bins and scattered across the land as far as the eye could see. The second was that the fields had all but turned into lakes.
It turns out the two were directly connected.
“Last year’s harvest is on the ground,” third-generation farmers and brothers Matt and Dan Sargent explained to me. “This year’s is under water.”
President Donald Trump’s tariffs have led America’s trading partners to turn elsewhere – leaving many farmers like the Sargents holding the bag. So, last year, the Sargents made a tough call: surrendering much of their potential profit, they loaded some of their harvest into storage containers, praying the market would eventually stabilize so they could sell it in the future.
Then, a few weeks ago, the Missouri River surged over its banks and through its levees, drowning their farm. It was one of the greatest floods in the river’s history, fueled, in part, by a changing climate. The soybeans that the Sargents had stored took on so much moisture that they burst out of their bins. Two years worth of crops, spoiled and worthless – a casualty not only of climate change but of this President’s unnecessary trade wars.
The Sargents thought they might find some relief through their government-issued crop insurance, only to discover that it didn’t cover stored grains. When Trump’s Department of Agriculture finally reached out to the Sargents, it wasn’t with assistance, but with a threat. According to the Sargents, the USDA said that if they didn’t immediately dispose of their ruined crops in the specified way, they would be punished with a citation on the grounds that spoiled crops posed an environmental risk to the soil.
This tragedy is not unique to the Sargents, or even to Iowa. In Texas, the price of Trump’s trade war is also being paid by pecan farmers in Seminole, which is the county seat of Gaines County. The 2016 election results showed that 84.8% of the county voted for Donald Trump – but now, with tariffs on pecans driving down profits, one farmer at a town hall told me, “I won’t be able to pass this farm down to my kids.”
Trump knows full well how destructive his trade wars have been. They amount to one of the biggest middle-class tax hikes in history. But even with so many farmers crippled by tariffs, drowning in debt, and some farms still underwater, our President has refused to throw them a meaningful lifeline.
The President said he would compensate the farmers whose lives were upended by the very crisis he created – but to this day, many farmers I spoke to say they have received little if any compensation. Needing to find work elsewhere in order to make a living, some farmers tell me they are having to walk away from their profession altogether.
And the more time I spend listening in rural communities, the clearer it becomes: China isn’t paying the price for this reckless trade war. We are.
This is only the most recent example of an administration that has ignored the interests of rural America. Longstanding inaction and indifference have left their communities with shuttered hospitals, underfunded schools and decaying highways, bridges, and railways.
And as the President’s more than $2 trillion tax cut helped corporations and the wealthiest Americans race forward, far too many more have been left behind. They have limited access to economic necessities like broadband, which they need to finish their education, look for a job, start a business or sell what they grow to the world.
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Those living in rural America aren’t looking for handouts. They don’t want anyone’s pity. They want a partner who will empower them, invest in them and allow them to make a profit as they grow the food and fiber that feeds and clothes us all.
Meeting with farmers like the Sargents inspired me to revise my climate plan to make sure that federal crop insurance covers stored grain. Our plan will also protect communities against flooding and create new market incentives for carbon farming – farming in more environmentally sustainable ways. And as president, I would work with rural America to end these awful trade wars.
We won’t address climate change or a broken economy with half measures or with only half the country. We need to go to forgotten places like Pacific Junction and Seminole – and not only pay lip service to their problems, but listen to their ideas and welcome them to be a part of the solution. That’s the only way we can transform this moment of peril into a moment of potential for all of us.