Here’s one thing Democrats can do to win rural voters: Fight factory farms

Donald Trump is banking on riding his hardline stance on immigration to re-election in 2020. Tough talk of a wall makes headlines, but it’s a less discussed issue that could play a deciding role for voters in swing states and early primary states: the influx of factory farms and the devastating impact they have on people’s water, air and way of life. Democratic presidential hopefuls would be smart to clarify their stance on consolidated corporate agriculture, and soon.

In Iowa – site of the first caucus, and a state that went for President Obama twice and then swung soundly to Trump – more than 750 waterways are impaired. The cause? Chemical fertilizers and factory farm manure.

Iowa is home to a little more than 3 million people. It is also home to 26 million hogs, living on over 10,000 factory farms. These hogs produce as much waste as 65 million people. That waste, full of dangerous nitrates, runs into Iowa’s waterways and eventually the drinking water.

As a result, the city of Des Moines has the largest nitrate removal system in the world.

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Barb Kalbach, fourth-generation family farmer from Adair county, says the path to cleaner Iowa water starts with stopping the expansion of factory farms: “Plain and simple, we need a moratorium on factory farms. We also need tough rules paired with tough enforcement, and we need the big ag polluters that created this mess to pay to clean it up.”

Kalbach, the board president of the grassroots organization Iowa CCI Action Fund, is not alone. There is momentum toward such a moratorium. Twenty-five of Iowa’s 99 counties have already passed resolutions calling for a state moratorium on new concentrated animal feeding operations (Cafos). In midterm election exit polling, conducted by Public Policy Polling, 73% of voters said Iowa’s governor and legislature need to require limits to manure pollution runoff into Iowa’s waterways.

Like Iowa, North Carolina is no stranger to factory farming. And like Iowa, there are more hogs than people in the Tar Heel State. Duplin county, North Carolina, with more than 2.2 million hogs, produces twice the untreated manure as the total sewage of New York City.

On any given day, that quantity of manure can ruin the air quality and quality of life for people in the area, but on some days it can be worse than that. As Hurricane Florence swept through North Carolina, 36 manure lagoons – pits that hold manure from Cafos – bled over and contaminated waterways in regions throughout the state.

Corporate agriculture is often an overlooked issue for those appealing to the Democratic party base. But in North Carolina, both a Super Tuesday presidential primary and general election swing state, candidates’ positions on factory farms will matter. And while factory farms affect North Carolinians of all races, people of color are 1.5 times as likely to live within three miles of a factory farm.

Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes have gone to the presidential winner in seven straight elections, though notably by a margin of fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016. In 1995 there were only 10 Cafos in the state. By 2016, that number jumped to more than 270, with over 44% (120 Cafos) concentrated in north-east Wisconsin.

In Kewaunee county, which sits east of Green Bay and borders Lake Michigan, over 60% of private wells tested are contaminated with fecal microbes, according to the US Department of Agriculture microbiologist Mark Borchardt. With upwards of 80,000 cows producing the same amount of waste as 1.6 million people, Cafos are drastically increasing the primary risk factor for water contamination: proximity to a manure storage pit.

Candidates looking to connect with rural voters have an opportunity to show them they are ready to fight on an issue that people face every day: threats to clean water. A 2018 water quality study released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported rural communities were particularly prone to water quality violations, and low-income rural communities even more so.

People’s views on immigration may differ, but there’s agreement to be found across the political spectrum that factory farms are harmful to the air, water and the family farm. Issues like these affect people’s lives, health and wellbeing, and despite the headlines and rhetoric, just might eclipse immigration as a motivating voting issue in these states in 2020. Candidates who are willing to stand up to corporate agriculture, and for clean air and water, will stand out in the primaries and the general election. If the tightly contested Democratic primary and the general election of 2016 are any indication, that could make all the difference.

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