Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday rolled out a strategy for how farmers and rural communities can help fight climate change, the defining issue of his presidential campaign.
Inslee’s plan is the sixth and final proposal under his sweeping climate agenda, which commits to shifting the American economy to 100 percent clean energy by 2030, rejoining the Paris climate agreement and seeking environmental justice for communities most affected by pollution.
He said the mounting climate crisis is part of a “triple threat” facing rural communities, along with a decades-long failure to invest in rural infrastructure and an “erratic” Trump administration that is hard to predict, particularly on trade policy.
But solutions to climate change can fuel economic growth, he argued.
“This future calls for regenerative agriculture that rewards farmers for putting carbon back into the ground where it can improve soil fertility and crop productivity,” Inslee said. “Climate solutions … will come from new, value-added agricultural production, community-led economic growth, and resilient infrastructure that will help revitalize local economies.”
How would his plan work for farmers?
Inslee would launch a “Carbon Farming” initiative to expand on a number of Agriculture Department programs, such as tripling funding for a voluntary conservation program that pays farmers to adopt certain practices. He would also give farmers discounts on their crop insurance coverage if they take steps to store more carbon in their soil and make their operation more resilient to climate change. Inslee would invest more money into researching agricultural innovations as well, though he didn’t outline how he would pay for the initiative.
His plan calls for paying farmers and ranchers — through existing USDA programs — for capturing methane emissions, which also can be converted into an energy source.
The Washington governor joined a chorus of other 2020 contenders in backing strengthened antitrust action against agribusinesses, arguing that consolidation in the industry is undermining small farms. He also would reverse President Donald Trump’s tariffs.
On the topic of farm labor, a sore spot for producers across the country, Inslee wants to convene a White House task force to design a visa system that would address worker shortages while protecting the rights of immigrants.
He said that expanded funding and visa approvals would be conditioned upon strict wage requirements, as well as requiring employers to verify that they could not hire domestic labor. Inslee also endorsed allowing farm workers to unionize.
What about the rural economy?
To promote economic development, Inslee wants to expand many New Deal-era programs and create new initiatives, with a focus on combating climate change.
His ideas include doubling funding for USDA’s Rural Utilities Service and creating an advanced tax credit to support clean electricity and manufacturing. Another concept is to establish a “Restoration Fund” that would make fossil fuel companies pay for environmental damage in rural communities, to help fund reclamation projects by local workers.
Inslee would make an $80 billion investment in rural broadband, and said some of that total should come from the private sector. But his plan specified that upward of $150 billion may be needed in the coming years to close the so-called digital divide.
Inslee would require Big Tech companies to contribute for the first time to the Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes telecommunications carriers serving rural areas and is run by the Federal Communications Commission.
He also wants a “massive expansion” of the budget for USDA’s Forest Service, to help prevent wildfires, but did not attach the price tag he has in mind. He said his administration would support policies that create a market for products made from forest waste.
How does his plan compare?
Inslee is the eighth 2020 contender to unveil a platform for boosting the rural and agricultural economies, but his is the most directly tied to climate change. Due to weaker poll numbers, he did not qualify for CNN’s climate change town hall in September, which includes 10 other Democratic candidates.
His plan to spend $3 billion a year on an existing USDA conservation program is similar to ideas advanced by other contenders, though Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has proposed the most robust investment, at $15 billion a year.
Inslee joins Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg in endorsing a right for farm workers to unionize, along with an overhaul of the visa system.