Environmental deregulation helped Trump win rural America. Now some fear he's gone too far

  • Iowa farmer Annette Sweeney voted for Donald Trump and supports his rolling back of environmental rules, some of which she sees as a hindrance to farmers.

    Iowa farmer Annette Sweeney voted for Donald Trump and supports his rolling back of environmental rules, some of which she sees as a hindrance to farmers. Washington Post

  • Dust drifts over a cornfield in Alden, Iowa. Corn dominates the landscape and is primarily used for producing ethanol and feeding hogs. Iowa is the leading U.S. producer of corn and pork.

    Dust drifts over a cornfield in Alden, Iowa. Corn dominates the landscape and is primarily used for producing ethanol and feeding hogs. Iowa is the leading U.S. producer of corn and pork. Washington Post/Aug. 28, 2017

Posted1/1/2018 1:00 AM

BUCKEYE, Iowa -- "Come on! Come on! Go girls!" Annette Sweeney was on horseback, hollering at her chocolate-colored cows on a perfect Iowa morning, happy that her life is better since Donald Trump became president.

Sweeney, 60, raises Angus cows and corn on the flat, green farmland of central Iowa. Just 1 in 7 Americans live in places like this: Rural counties have 72 percent of the nation's land but a shrinking population as urban areas have ballooned in size and wealth.


In recent years, Sweeney has felt a growing "disconnect" between how people think in cities and in places like Buckeye, a town of 108. In her view, farmers were too often "shoved aside" during the presidency of Barack Obama, while environmentalists and conservationists, many of whom live nowhere near a farm, took over the national conversation.

Obama set aside millions of acres of undeveloped land as national monuments -- more than any other president -- preventing huge areas from being mined, logged or farmed. Obama also implemented more regulations with a significant economic impact than any president in three decades, according to the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center. Those actions were cheered by many Americans but widely viewed in rural areas as killing jobs.

Incredibly, Sweeney said, Obama's Agriculture Department even started pushing "Meatless Mondays," an insult to Iowa's pork, beef and chicken producers. "I will eat more meat on Monday to compensate for stupid USDA recommendation abt a meatless Monday," Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R, tweeted in response. Meatless Mondays felt like a "slap in the face" to Sweeney, who has this bumper sticker on her Buick: "EAT BEEF: The West Wasn't Won on Salad."

But nothing galled Sweeney more than a regulation Obama issued in 2015 called "Waters of the United States" or WOTUS. The Environmental Protection Agency said it was aimed at keeping pollutants -- including fertilizer, manure and other farm runoff -- out of streams and creeks that feed the nation's waterways. Farm runoff is a leading cause of water pollution, contaminating drinking water, spawning toxic algal blooms and killing fish.

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To Sweeney, WOTUS felt like the government's hands on her throat.

Was some bureaucrat now going to show up and police her puddles and tiniest ditches of water? She said that is what happened several years ago: A federal conservation official told Sweeney she had a half-acre of wetland in the middle of a 160-acre field. Wetlands are protected habitats for migrating birds and other wildlife and are important for healthy soil and water.

"Suddenly, this piece of land that we had been farming for 70 years was federally protected, and we had to stop everything," said Sweeney, who was born on the farm and raised two boys there.

In the end, Sweeney had to pay $5,000 to preserve a small parcel of wetland elsewhere so she could continue farming her own property. The experience contributed to a feeling that "we were smothered" by the federal government, Sweeney said.

That feeling lifted when Trump was elected on a promise to reverse much of what Obama had done. Sweeney, a former Republican state lawmaker who is active in Iowa corn and cattle associations, was so happy that she went online and ordered fancy dresses and flew to Washington to attend her first inauguration. There, she listened to Trump vow that "the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer."


"Now, we have someone we can call," she said, riding her horse, Cowboy, through the shallows of the Iowa River's South Fork, which flows through her fields. "Finally, some sensibility is coming back to Washington."

Annette Sweeney at home in Alden, Iowa. She recently became the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Iowa director for rural development.
Annette Sweeney at home in Alden, Iowa. She recently became the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Iowa director for rural development. - Washington Post/Aug. 29, 2017

Most of Iowa is farmland. The bellwether state voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, but last year, Trump won 93 of its 99 counties. He lost Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, the largest cities, but he did not need them. Trump's winning formula was to dominate the vote in rural areas, which have fewer people but outsize clout in the electoral college and the Senate.

Rural areas continue to be Trump's strongest base of support. Nationally, 52 percent of people in rural areas support Trump, compared with 25 percent in urban areas, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC poll. Republicans are hoping to build on that support as they head into the 2018 congressional elections.

In June, Trump made his first visit to Iowa as president, and Sweeney drove 130 miles to hear him speak in a community college gymnasium. Farmers and agricultural leaders joined Trump onstage as he thanked them for helping to flip the state from Democratic to Republican.

"A lot of places people were not thinking about turned red! Those maps, those electoral maps! They were all red -- beautiful red," Trump said. "I'm not a farmer, but I'd be very happy to be one," he added. "It's a very beautiful world to me and it's a truly noble American profession."

As Trump spoke, a huge "PROMISES KEPT" banner hung from the balcony -- a reference to the big prize he had already delivered to Iowa and many rural states: rolling back WOTUS. Issued as the 2016 presidential campaign shifted into high gear, the regulation turned out to be an unintended gift to Trump.

The rule sought to clarify that the 1972 Clean Water Act applied not only to major bodies of water, but also to their headwaters. That meant farmers could be fined for polluting small creeks and streams that had a "significant nexus" with larger waterways.

To environmentalists and many others, the rule made sense. Contaminants flush off farms, flow into streams and rivers, and gush into larger bodies of water. In the Gulf of Mexico, a "dead zone" the size of New Jersey has been traced by numerous scientific studies to the tons of fertilizers and pesticides sprayed on farms in the Midwest. The streams that cross Sweeney's farm, for example, flow into the Iowa River, which feeds the Mississippi, which ultimately empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

But the densely worded clean-water rule, which filled 75 pages in the Federal Register, created more confusion than clarity.

As presidential candidates crisscrossed Iowa, the Farm Bureau said WOTUS could apply to dry creek beds and ditches. The farmers group, the country's largest agricultural organization, with hundreds of thousands of members, launched a clever "Ditch the Rule" campaign in videos on Facebook and YouTube.

Neither Sweeney nor any of a dozen Iowa farmers interviewed for this story ever read the regulation. They got all their information from the Farm Bureau. Sweeney said she also spoke to an agricultural attorney she trusts.

What she learned, Sweeney said, was that WOTUS was a "one-size fits all" rule that left no room for farmers to exercise their own judgment about their land. "It was like telling us how to raise our children," said her husband, Dave.

On the campaign trail, Trump capitalized on and added to the growing anger and confusion. The rule explicitly states that it does not apply to "puddles," but Trump insisted it did. He called WOTUS "one of the worst rules ever ... a disaster!" If elected, he said, he would kill it "on Day One."

"It won him Iowa," Sweeney said, in her jeans and boots, nudging her last cow into a corral.

In February, with cameras rolling, Trump held an Oval Office ceremony to announce that he was officially suspending the "horrible rule" that covered "nearly every puddle or every ditch on a farmer's land."

Sweeney was thrilled, but a backlash was building in cities and even among some of her neighbors along the South Fork.

Iowa farmer John Gilbert works to replace a culvert where the South Fork of the Iowa River traverses his land in Hardin County. Gilbert and his wife practice sustainable farming, for which they have won awards.
Iowa farmer John Gilbert works to replace a culvert where the South Fork of the Iowa River traverses his land in Hardin County. Gilbert and his wife practice sustainable farming, for which they have won awards. - Washington Post/Aug. 29, 2017

John Gilbert, 68, lives four miles downstream from Sweeney and thinks there should be more rules to protect the environment, not fewer.

"People don't like to be told what to do. I get that. But we do not even have close to enough regulations," said Gilbert, a soft-spoken grandfather who also lives on the land where he grew up.

"People are saying the big, bad government is out to get us, but I happen to think we need clean water," he said. "It's going to take someone with enough guts to say to farmers, 'Stop plowing right up to the edge of water.' "

A Democrat in a predominantly Republican county, Gilbert knows he is in the minority. He is a farmer with 60 dairy cows and 150 pigs in a state dominated by far-larger farms. He keeps his pigs in an outdoor pen, rather than indoors in a "mass confinement" facility. And he uses no antibiotics, selling his pork to a company that supplies "natural and humanely raised" meat to select stores and restaurants.

In late summer, Gilbert joined a gathering in the lodge at Pine Lake, 20 miles east of Buckeye, to talk about threats to clean water in the Trump era. Attendees ticked off their concerns: a lack of safeguards on the millions of tons of pig manure generated annually by Iowa hog farms; rising toxicity observed in catfish caught in local rivers; the putrid, pea soup-colored carpet of algae that had bloomed on local lakes.

"Who enforces the rules?" asked one woman who rose to speak.

"Nobody!" several people shouted back.

State officials had just issued another warning about swimming at Pine Lake after finding E. coli and other contaminants in the water. It was a problem at many Iowa lakes. Robert Hogg, a Democratic state senator from Cedar Rapids, urged people to think of solutions that farmers would find workable.

"We can't have this urban versus rural divide," Hogg said.

Gilbert listened quietly. Afterward, he said regulations often benefit the common good. He mentioned smoking bans on planes and mandatory seat belts in cars.

Gilbert said Trump has been "irresponsible at best and derelict at worst" in his war on regulations. By its own count, the Trump administration has killed 67 rules and "canceled or delayed" 1,500 more. "The never-ending growth of red tape in America has come to a sudden, screeching and beautiful halt," Trump said this month.

But Gilbert said the lack of federal oversight is leading to a "Wild West" atmosphere where "it's OK to pollute in the name of jobs."

Iowa has more acres of corn and soybeans than any other state. It has 3 million people and 20 million pigs. The state's pork industry alone accounts for 40,000 jobs and $7.5 billion a year in revenue. People here joke that the stench of industrial pig pens is the "smell of money."

"We have too many people saying everything is perfectly fine because it's more important how much money we can make trying to feed the world," said Gilbert, who, along with his wife, Beverly, has won awards for sustainable farming.

Gilbert noted that the same neighbors who complain about Washington "overreach" benefit from federal crop subsidies and mandates to use corn-based ethanol in gasoline.

Back at home, Gilbert keeps a stack of Des Moines Register articles on his kitchen table that describe high levels of nitrates in the state capital's drinking water. The Des Moines Water Works utility recently sued three rural counties, claiming that farm runoff had produced the nitrates, which have been linked to cancer. The suit was dismissed, but the urban-rural water dispute rages on.

"Big AG brings in so much money for the state that it gets a free pass," Gilbert said. "We hold the land in trust and have an obligation to the public for water quality. That is completely being lost. It's scary."

Annette Sweeney rounds up cattle on her farm in Iowa.
Annette Sweeney rounds up cattle on her farm in Iowa. - Washington Post

Sweeney thinks all the talk about polluted water is overblown. Decades ago, when she was growing up, the snow banks sometimes turned gray because of pollution. It's far better now, she said.

She also finds it maddening to be told that she does not care enough about clean water.

"Holy smokes, yes, we do!" Sweeney said, filling a pail of feed for her bull.

She and Gilbert are both active in the Southfork Watershed Alliance, which aims to protect local water quality. The neighbors are divided about their approach: Sweeney believes conservation efforts should be voluntary, while Gilbert says that is not enough to stop pollution.

While serving in the state legislature from 2009 to 2013, Sweeney sponsored a bill that made it illegal to use "false pretenses" to enter any farm or other agricultural facility. The measure was a response to photos and videos taken by undercover animal welfare activists who had been hired at farms.

Sweeney said the bill was intended to prevent a person from giving a false name on a job application and then standing by and recording abuse instead of reporting it immediately. But many others, including animal rights groups, called it an "ag-gag" aimed at silencing whistleblowers trying to expose cruelty to animals.

Sweeney dismisses those complaints. During the Obama era, she said, activists with little understanding of farming took center stage. With Trump in the White House, she sees farmers getting more attention: "It's the difference between feeling like you are being talked to and being listened to."

But Sweeney still has one big worry: Trump's threats to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement. Iowa farmers rely heavily on exports. As Trump neared the end of his first year in office, Sweeney gave him a "seven out of ten."

After being interviewed for this story, Sweeney got a phone call asking her to join the Trump administration as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She is now Iowa director for rural development, charged with improving the quality of life in rural parts of the state.

Sweeney's first priority in the job is bringing broadband access to places that are not yet connected to the internet. In a recent interview on Iowa Agribusiness Radio Network, Sweeney said her own son had a hard time starting a business "because there was no internet, no satellite, nothing."

"I believe in the rural areas, I believe in our rural development -- what a great opportunity," she said.

The Iowa rancher who once felt forgotten was now on the inside.

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