“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. One 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.

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. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

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.

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.”

Dust drifts over a cornfield in 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. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

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.

In Iowa, a snapshot of the rural vs. urban divide

Iowa, an early-caucus and battleground state for the general election, is representative of the political divide between rural and urban areas. In the 2016 general election, Donald Trump won 93 of 99 counties.

Iowa population by county

(July 1, 2016 estimates)

Won by

Trump

Each circle’s size represents a county’s population

500,000

50,000

Won by

Clinton

5,000

Estherville

Spencer

Algona

Cedar Falls

Fort Dodge

Sioux City

Carroll

Cedar Rapids

Ames

Denison

Iowa

City

Des

Moines

Davenport

However, Hillary Clinton won the five most populous counties and six of the seven largest cities.

General election vote totals

Clinton

653,669

Trump

800,983

In the end, the accumulated total of rural voters was enough to hand Trump victory.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau,

Iowa Secretary of State

THE WASHINGTON POST

In Iowa, a snapshot of the rural vs. urban divide

Iowa, an early-caucus and battleground state for the general election, is representative of the political divide between rural and urban areas. In the 2016 general election, Donald Trump won 93 of 99 counties.

Each circle’s size represents a county’s population

Iowa population by county (July 1, 2016 estimates)

Estherville

Spencer

500,000

Algona

Le Mars

50,000

Cedar Falls

Sioux City

Fort Dodge

5,000

Carroll

Cedar

Rapids

Ames

Denison

Won by Trump

Won by Clinton

Iowa

City

Des Moines

Davenport

However, Hillary Clinton won the five most populous counties and six of the seven largest cities.

In the end, the accumulated total of rural voters was enough to hand Trump victory.

General election vote totals

Clinton

653,669

Trump

800,983

THE WASHINGTON POST

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Iowa Secretary of State

In Iowa, a snapshot of the rural vs. urban divide

Iowa, an early-caucus and battleground state for the general election, is representative of the political divide between rural and urban areas. In the 2016 general election, Donald Trump won 93 of 99 counties.

Each circle’s size represents a county’s population

Iowa population by county (July 1, 2016 estimates)

Estherville

Spencer

500,000

Algona

Le Mars

50,000

5,000

Cedar Falls

Sioux City

Fort Dodge

Carroll

Cedar

Rapids

Ames

Denison

Won by Trump

Won by Clinton

Iowa

City

Des Moines

Davenport

However, Hillary Clinton won the five most populous counties and six of the seven largest cities.

In the end, the accumulated total of rural voters was enough to hand Trump victory.

General election vote totals

Clinton

653,669

Trump

800,983

THE WASHINGTON POST

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Iowa Secretary of State

“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 “Ditch the Rule” campaign in videos on Facebook and YouTube.

Neither Sweeney nor any of a dozen Iowa farmers interviewed for this article 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 on Aug. 29, 2017. Gilbert and his wife practice sustainable farming, for which they have won awards. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

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.

A changing population

Over the past hundred years, the nation’s urban population has ballooned, while the population in rural areas has stayed about the same.

Total U.S. population

350

million people

320.9

300

250

200

274.7

150

100

Urban population

42.1

50

Rural population

50.2

46.2

0

1910

2015

About 14 percent of the population lives in rural areas, and about 72 percent of the country’s geography is rural land.

100%

Urban

population

86%

54%

50%

46%

14%

Rural

population

0

1910

2015

Percentage of people living

in rural areas, by county

100%

rural

50% to 99.9%

rural

Less than

50% rural

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

THE WASHINGTON POST

A changing population

Over the past hundred years, the nation’s urban population has ballooned, while the population in rural areas has stayed about the same.

350

million people

Total U.S. population 320.9 million

300

250

200

274.7 million

150

100

Urban population

42.1 million

50

Rural population

50.2 million

46.2 million

0

1910

’20

’30

’40

’50

’60

’70

’80

’90

’00

2015

About 14 percent of the population lives in rural areas, and about 72 percent of the country’s geography is rural land.

Percentage of people living

in rural areas, by county

100%

Urban

population

100%

rural

50% to

99.9% rural

Less than

50% rural

86%

54%

50%

46%

14%

Rural

population

0

1910

2015

THE WASHINGTON POST

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

A changing population

Over the past hundred years, the nation’s urban population has ballooned, while the population in rural areas has stayed about the same.

350

million people

Total U.S. population 320.9 million

300

250

200

274.7 million

Total U.S.

population

150

100

Urban population

42.1 million

50

Rural population

50.2 million

46.2 million

0

1910

’20

’30

’40

’50

’60

’70

’80

’90

’00

2015

About 14 percent of the population lives in rural areas, and about 72 percent of the country’s geography is rural land.

Percentage of people living in rural areas,

by county

100%

Urban

population

100%

rural

50% to

99.9% rural

Less than

50% rural

86%

54%

50%

46%

14%

Rural

population

0

1910

2015

THE WASHINGTON POST

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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 okay 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 grew up in farming and lives in the home her father built. She remains a farmer and recently became the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Iowa director for rural development. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The 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.

Rural states have an electoral advantage

Electoral votes are equal to the number of representatives and senators a state has in Congress. House seat apportionments are based on population. Every state is guaranteed at least one seat in the House and two in the Senate.

Electoral college representation relative to population in 2016

Population very underrepresented

Population slightly underrepresented

Population slightly overrepresented

ME

WI

VT

NH

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

DC

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

AK

TX

FL

The electoral college is supposed to guarantee that populous states cannot dominate an election, but it also sets up a disparity in representation.

California — the most populous state — has one electoral vote per 712,000 people...

Each square

represents

10,000 people

1 electoral vote

... but Wyoming — the least populous state in the country — has one electoral vote per 195,000 people.

Note: 2016 population numbers are based on 2015 estimates.

2016 votes-cast numbers are as of Dec. 1.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

THE WASHINGTON POST

Rural states have an electoral advantage

Electoral votes are equal to the number of representatives and senators a state has in Congress. House seat apportionments are based on population. Every state is guaranteed at least one seat in the House and two in the Senate.

 

ME

Electoral college

representation relative

to population in 2016

WI

VT

NH

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

Population very

underrepresented

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

Population slightly

underrepresented

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

DC

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

Population slightly

overrepresented

HI

AK

TX

FL

The electoral college is supposed to guarantee that populous states cannot dominate an election, but it also sets up a disparity in representation.

California — the most populous state — has one electoral vote per 712,000 people...

... but Wyoming —

the least populous state in the

country — has one electoral vote per 195,000 people.

1 electoral

vote

Each square represents 10,000 people

Note: 2016 population numbers are based on 2015 estimates.

2016 votes-cast numbers are as of Dec. 1.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Rural states have an electoral advantage

Electoral votes are equal to the number of representatives and senators a state has in Congress. House seat apportionments are based on population. Every state is guaranteed at least one seat in the House and two in the Senate.

 

ME

Electoral college representation

relative to population in 2016

WI

VT

NH

Population very

underrepresented

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

Population slightly

underrepresented

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

Population slightly

overrepresented

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

DC

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

AK

TX

FL

The electoral college is supposed to guarantee that populous states cannot dominate an election, but it also sets up a disparity in representation.

California — the most populous state — has one electoral vote per 712,000 people...

... but Wyoming —

the least populous state in the

country — has one electoral vote per 195,000 people.

1 electoral

vote

Each square represents

10,000 people

Note: 2016 population numbers are based on 2015 estimates.

2016 votes-cast numbers are as of Dec. 1.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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 rights 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 10.”

After being interviewed for this article, 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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