Gas tax issue illustrates rural, urban divide

This article originally appeared The Lakeshore Weekly News.

The Star Tribune recently ran an opinion piece by James Lenfestey, who advocated for an increase in the gas tax to finance infrastructure improvements and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but cautioned lawmakers to keep rural Minnesotans in mind when crafting this policy.

While it is admirable that the author wants to be sensitive to the needs of rural Minnesotans, the editorial further illustrates how people living in the metro area have scant idea how the policies they advocate harm those living outside of it.

I grew up on a small dairy farm in rural Wisconsin, helping my family raise 140 head of cattle while farming 500 acres, and many of the challenges we faced are the same challenges families currently face throughout rural Minnesota. Hopefully my life experiences can help me communicate the rural perspective to a broader audience.

First, it is important to realize that reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the agricultural sector will be a much larger undertaking than promoting wind and solar, having an electric farm exhibit at the State Fair, or subsidizing electric farm equipment.

The largest obstacle to reducing carbon dioxide emissions is that it simply isn’t possible to run a farm on just wind or solar.

Electric fences only work when they’re electrified, but wind and solar only produce electricity when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. Farms require electricity every hour of the day. In Minnesota, this electricity is provided by coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants because they generate electricity regardless of weather conditions.

I’ve chased enough fleeing cows back into the pasture at 2 a.m. in the middle of January to know that few farmers will forego a steadily electrified fence so people living in the metro can feel warm fuzzy feelings about reducing their carbon dioxide emissions.

Electric tractors are also problematic. The John Deere electric tractor discussed by the author costs $634,000 and can only run for up to four hours before it must be recharged for three. In contrast, a nearly new Case IH Magnum tractor retails for $264,000, and these tractors can run for up to eight hours before they must take about fifteen minutes to refuel.

Even if cost were not an issue, the four-hour battery life would be. It is not unusual for farmers to spend 12 to 16 hours per day behind the wheel during planting season to prepare the fields, plant the crops, apply fertilizer etc. There simply isn’t enough time to wait for three hours for recharging during this time of year, especially if we have a late, or exceptionally wet, spring.

Electric conversion kits for trucks are also unrealistic because converted trucks have a range of about 87 miles, without factoring in diminished range for hauling livestock or grain to market. My dad frequently hauled cattle 376 miles, round trip, to a sale barn in Bloomington, Wisconsin, which routinely pays the best prices for beef cattle.

An electric truck simply won’t get this job done, and a 25 cent per gallon gas tax assessed on a truck that gets 11 to 14 miles per gallon while towing six 1,500-pound steers feels like piling on when the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects net farm income will be down 12 percent this year.

I appreciate the author’s intent, but this article still feels like the author is talking at, rather than listening to, how the policies being advocated by the author will make it more difficult for small farmers to keep food on our tables and make a living off the land.