Ag Issues Taking a Backseat

Outside of Ethanol, Presidential Candidates Largely Avoiding Ag Concerns

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Pictured are some of the presidential candidates who have been campaigning around Iowa ahead of the state's caucuses on Feb. 1, including (clockwise from top left) Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, Republican candidates Rand Paul and Chris Christie, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Jeb Bush. (DTN photos by Chris Clayton)

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (DTN) -- With fewer than three weeks left until the first actual votes for U.S. president, farm policy is largely taking a backseat to other issues, even as candidates barnstorm across Iowa looking to solidify support in a state where farming is the center of the economy.

Overall, Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, said he has noticed an effort by candidates to avoid issues critical to agriculture such as trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or immigration reform to improve and expand the guest-worker program for farmers.

"There has been a level of varying degree of indifference by the candidates toward agriculture, and they have to be reminded," Hill said. "There's an avoidance by the candidates because they know that conversation is on a national stage rather than just an Iowa or rural stage. So it's something we strive and work for to get them to talk about ag issues, but it's not always easy."

Hill said one of the problems is most people take agriculture for granted. Yet, farmers have more and more critics, so that avoidance by the presidential candidates takes away from the opportunity to bring more awareness to what farmers are doing and the need for technology, Hill said.

"As we increase our technology use, we need to also better communicate why we are using that technology and how it conserves soil, how it makes us more efficient, how it provides more food and those sort of things," Hill said.

Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, said the absence of agriculture as an issue is both "amazing and shocking" after powerful people held an Ag Summit in Iowa last year. "There is something disturbing 'the Force,'" Schmidt said.

Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, said he has seen three central themes, particularly from Republican candidates in recent months. National security and terrorism are a combined topic; there is the complaint that President Barack Obama is exceeding his constitutional powers; and then there is the question of illegal immigration. The lack of a single major concern among farmers puts most agricultural issues on the backburner, he said.

"At the moment, there's not the sense I can tell that we are talking about an industry in crisis," Goldford said. "(Ag) has got its particular concerns and issues the way any another interest group would. And I think that's the way candidates are approaching it at this point. But those issues are secondary to those broader issues."

The policy group AGree this week sent each presidential candidate several recommendations as a "call to action" to try to elevate issues around food and agriculture as national priorities. The group noted food and agricultural-related businesses contribute nearly $900 billion to gross domestic product. AGree calls for more research for agriculture dealing with topics ranging from weather volatility to water quality and also nutrition issues such as obesity. Also, agricultural policy needs to better develop the next generation of farmers and support them in challenges such as acquiring land and equipment. At the same time, the group reiterated the need for a stable agricultural workforce through immigration reform. Risk management policies also should be strengthened, AGree stated, and risk management needs to be better linked to policies surrounding conservation and working lands. http://www.foodandagpolicy.org/…

Candidates continue to flood into rural Iowa towns for stump speeches and meet-and-greets. Just in the next week, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Donald Trump have multiple events scheduled in the state. Last week, Ted Cruz, Martin O'Malley and Rand Paul also heavily canvassed the state.

Following an event last week, DTN asked Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky, about his stances on agricultural policy. Paul has opposed farm bills in the past, mainly because Paul said he would like to see more cuts and reforms to nutrition programs in the farm bill.

"I come from a farming state also and we have some of the same issues, maybe not on as big a scale as Iowa does, but we have a lot of the same farming issues," Paul said.

He added, "The farm bill tends to be, what they tend to do, you know I told you right and left get together to get one spending bill passed," Paul said. "That's what we have a lot in the farm bill. You have the right, which has been supportive of farmers, and the left, which has been more supportive of food stamps. You put them together in one enormous bill and that makes it pretty difficult for me to vote for a farm bill because I think it's part of our debt problem."

Bush also recently has talked about eliminating nutrition programs from the farm bill by converting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to a block grant. That issue was debated heavily in Congress before the 2014 farm bill was passed. House Republicans wanted to convert SNAP to grants for states, but then House leaders needed Democrats to pass a bill.

Paul pointed to support for individual items such as crop insurance. He also noted he has worked more to try to get the government out of regulations that hamper farmers. He pointed to a bill he has worked on with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to help allow service stations to sell higher blends of ethanol. Paul characterized it as "deregulating the ethanol industry."

Regarding immigration, Paul responded to a question in Council Bluffs by saying the U.S. can't have a completely open immigration policy, particularly due to terrorism. Still, Paul indicated the U.S. can't close the border, either, and he pointed to agricultural jobs as one reason.

"We have 400,000 people who come here from Mexico to pick crops," Paul said. "If somebody built a wall and say nobody comes in, then there would be a lot of crops not picked because people who live here or were born here aren't willing to do that work anymore. So you have to have an adequate legal immigration program in order to get rid of illegal immigration. If it's easy to come in and work, people will be coming in, going back and forth. They will be paying taxes and they will be out of the shadows."

A high percentage of farmer workers are in the U.S. illegally every year. The H-2A guest-worker program allowed in 89,000 people in 2014 for temporary farm work, but agricultural groups have called on Congress to overhaul the H-2A program because it is cumbersome and does not allow workers to stay longer on jobs such as at livestock operations.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, doesn't talk specifically about agriculture in her stump speech, nor does she hold any media availability afterward. Clinton did touch on biofuels as she discussed climate change and criticized the GOP for defense of fossil fuels. Clinton said she would push for a transition to a cleaner, renewable energy.

"This is doable, and you know why I know it's doable?" Clinton said. "Because you are doing it in Iowa. Iowa is leading the way. If you look at the country, you are one of the top three states in producing energy from wind. You are moving on with biofuels and advanced-biofuels research, so we're even trying to figure out that advanced biofuels can fuel our military planes and our Navy ships ... So when people say 'We can't do this.' Well, Iowa is doing a lot more than other folks are doing."

Clinton's chief Democratic opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, toured Iowa just before the end of the year. He told supporters he supports a farm safety net for smaller farmers, but he also opposes the Pacific trade deal. "I'm a very, very, very strong proponent of family-based agriculture, not factory farming or corporate farming," Sanders said at an event in Red Oak, Iowa.

Ethanol has been the one issue to remain in the spotlight because of a push by groups such as Iowa's Renewable Future to get candidates to support the Renewable Fuels Standard. The group has been especially critical of Paul and Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas. Last week, ethanol backers parsed Cruz's words after he agreed to keep the RFS through 2022 but phase it down. Next week, Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum also are expected to speak at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit.

Bob Stallman, outgoing president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, stressed the need to farmers to talk to candidates about regulatory reform, the Pacific trade pact and labor needs for farmers. In his final speech to Farm Bureau members on Sunday, Stallman said farmers have to stand up and make sure their voices are heard. "They should be paying attention and realizing agriculture is not getting a mention to any extent in any of the debates or the candidate positions are not focusing on agricultural issues and realize they need to start stepping up and making their voices and concerns known," Stallman said.

In an interview with DTN, Stallman said the lack of discussion about farm and food-related issues, should be noted by producers. "It should be a wake-up call to farmers and ranchers. They can't just sit back on the farm and hope that somebody else makes the case," Stallman said. He added, "Or else we will be stuck with what we get."

Chris Clayton can be reached at chris.clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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Chris Clayton