February 6, 2019
By Dan McGuire
Sometimes, it feels like farmers are the ultimate gamblers -- their livelihoods depend on so many factors that must be left to chance.
They can’t control the weather: too much rain, too little rain or rain at the wrong time can be devastating. They can’t control the commodities market; they’re at the mercy of changing prices for necessities like fuel and fertilizer. And they can’t control the marketplace: Whether it’s corn, cattle or soybeans, prices can crash -- and remain stubbornly low -- as they have now for several years.
The reality is farming is a thin-margin business, and unexpected complications in any number of areas can make the difference between turning a profit for the year or finishing in the red. That’s why anything that offers a stable income source for farming communities is worth its weight in gold.
In Nebraska, that stable income is increasingly coming from wind energy.
Any Nebraskan who earns a living off the land has battled the wind. But it’s only in recent years that we’ve begun truly tapping into this world-class resource. Over the past few years, wind farms have started springing up across the state, and these projects are providing a financial lifeline for our farming communities.
For one, they provide stable income that helps farmers and ranchers weather drought or low crop prices. The Journal Star reported that, in 2018, landowners were paid an estimated $5.8 million in lease payments for hosting wind turbines ("Passion and opinions," Feb. 1). That’s money they can count on rain or shine, and it’s also a number that’s poised to grow a lot in the coming years -- Nebraska is one of seven states on track to double its installed wind capacity.
However, landowners with turbines on their property aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from wind’s growth in our state. Wind projects create hundreds of jobs during construction and dozens of permanent, good-paying positions in operations and maintenance once projects are up and running. That offers new career opportunities to young people, meaning they don’t need to leave home to find jobs that will let them support their families.
Wind projects also bring much-needed income to rural counties. They bring in new tax revenue that helps fix roads, fund law enforcement, improve schools, and ease the property tax burden on landowners.
Unfortunately, just like an unexpected drought or spike in gas prices, Nebraska farmers hoping to harvest the wind have been thrown yet another curveball -- the Trump administration’s trade war with China is threatening wind’s growth in our state.
Tariffs that tax certain wind turbine parts could unnecessarily raise the cost of wind power, preventing some of the wind farms in our development pipeline from getting built. That means fewer jobs and less income for host communities.
The trade dispute is already affecting farmers in our state. It could take decades to reverse the economic damage from the administration’s tariff regime. Tariffs are hurting farmers’ ability to sell soybeans and other ag products in overseas markets, including ethanol and its co-products, which are extremely important to Nebraska.
Other tariffs affecting the manufacturing sector raise the cost of the equipment farmers need for their operations. Jeopardizing farmers' potential to earn new income from the wind sweeping the plains only adds insult to injury.
It’s true that we need an international trade system that treats American workers and businesses fairly -- the administration is right to pursue this goal. However, if the actions they’re taking are hurting American farmers and the rural economy, then who really benefits from this dispute?
We need our elected officials to look out for our interests, and they can start by ensuring this trade war doesn’t end up hurting the very people they’re supposed to be protecting.
Dan McGuire is director of the American Corn Growers Foundation.
Mr. McGuire lives in Lincoln.