NEW ORLEANS (DTN) -- Farmers are looking for some normalcy to come back into presidential politics this year, but farmers at Commodity Classic also were divided on the state of the campaign.
Groups such as the National Corn Growers Association don't back or support any candidate, but the group wants to make sure farmers are reaching out to all the candidates to talk about the importance of the farm economy to rural America.
"We need to make sure we have a candidate that supports ethanol and a candidate that supports trade and a candidate that knows rural America is a vital part of this country," said Chip Bowling, outgoing president of NCGA. "We're beating the bush for those candidates."
Jay Vroom, president and CEO of CropLife America, said the presidential race "is as confused and mixed up at this point for agriculture as I can ever remember." Farm lobbies are working as a coalition to talk about agricultural priorities with whoever wins the nomination for either party. The coalition is planning various events around the two party conventions later this summer.
"There are a bunch of us in the ag community that have been talking for well over a year about how to approach the different candidates and getting ag ideas in," Vroom said. "The good news is some of that sorting out has occurred and we are better organized in an ag coalition than we ever have been."
More advanced talks about policies with candidates could help curb some of the regulatory challenges that have plagued agriculture under the Barack Obama administration, Vroom said. "I would not automatically assume, for instance, that Mr. Obama's EPA polices and approach on water issues is automatically what Hillary would adopt," Vroom said. "I think there's a pretty good slate to start over and reload."
Ken McCauley, a farmer from northeast Kansas, said he has been watching the election pretty closely. Agricultural policy is largely being overlooked by the candidates, but McCauley said "We do not have any friends in this deal." He doesn't think the lead candidates in either party -- Clinton and Trump --- would do as much damage as has been done to agriculture in the past.
"It's been interesting, on the Republican side especially, that the candidates are speaking down (to) the level of the voters," McCauley said. He added, "If you have a Democratic sweep like we had in '08, then we've got big problems."
Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders carried their respective caucuses in Kansas on Saturday by wide margins. Cruz also carried Maine while Sanders won the Nebraska caucuses. In other primaries, Donald Trump won both Kentucky and Louisiana over Cruz and other GOP rivals while Hillary Clinton won a Democratic primary in Louisiana.
McCauley would like to think Clinton would do some of the things Bill did to pull people together. He was more concerned about Sanders winning and the implications that would have on higher taxes.
"I'm probably not scared of Trump or Clinton right now. I think if it's a sweep where Democrats had control of everything, I would be more scared," said McCauley, concerned that Democrats would clamp down on agriculture with environmental regulations.
NCGA and other groups at Commodity Classic called passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership a top priority for agriculture. Farm groups are hoping TPP can be passed by Congress before President Obama leaves office because the leading candidates for both parties have declared they oppose the deal.
Trump also wants to reset the trade relationship with China, which he says has been a disaster. At the top of Trump's website Positions listing is "U.S.-China Trade Reform." Trump highlights President Bill Clinton's advocacy in 2000 for China to be allowed into the World Trade Organization. Trump said it has been a disaster.
China did, however, become the top market for U.S. agricultural products, so much so that farmers are feeling the pinch caused by China slowing down its purchase of U.S. ag products in 2016. U.S. ag exports to China peaked at nearly $30 billion in 2014 and were $25.9 billion for 2015, but USDA is projecting those exports to fall to roughly $17.5 billion for 2016.
Bowling noted Trump is not a politician but a business person. "We don't want anyone who is going to be our future president to come in and jeopardize any trade potential we have with any country, let alone China," Bowling said. "Whether or not he can do a better job than we've seen in recent years, I don't know -- that remains to be seen. That's a tough question to answer. I just hope whoever our next president is can get past the barriers we've been having and increase trade to China and other countries."
Kelly Nieuwenhuis, a farmer from Primghar, Iowa, said his take on the election is that "it's mindboggling who is in the lead in the presidential campaign." Nieuwenhuis supported Marco Rubio in the Iowa caucuses last month and said he felt good that Rubio overwhelmingly carried his precinct.
"It's a tough battle right now. You can tell by the votes that U.S. citizens are really upset with the politics at this time. That's why we have the people that are leading in both parties because of the outside politics," Nieuwenhuis said. He added, "It concerns me that Donald Trump is leading on the Republican side."
Regarding Democrats, Nieuwenhuis said he would be more shocked if Sanders were leading because of his socialistic programs. "I'm not surprised on the Democratic side who is leading," he said.
Nieuwenhuis said he wished there was more focus on the national debt because of the long-term effects it will have on future generations. Health care also is a concern because he's self-employed. "And the ethanol industry is huge for me," Nieuwenhuis said. "I've been farming for 33 years and the best thing that ever happened to me was ethanol."
McCauley also reiterated the importance of ethanol policy for farmers. "If we can't hold ethanol and the RFS, then we are going to look at huge carryovers" of corn, McCauley said.
SEARCHING FOR NORMALCY
Kristin Weeks Duncanson, a farmer from Minnesota, said late last week she supported Ohio Republican John Kasich who has struggled to gain traction in the contests thus far.
"He is a normal guy and governors make good presidents," she said. "He's very normal. I like normal."
Duncanson noted Ohio has had its problems like every other state, but Kasich has provided needed leadership to the state.
"I just think we have an opportunity to rally behind the guy. If he can make it through Ohio, that would be great. I have no confidence at all in Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. We can train Marco Rubio, but it's a very troubling time."
Duncanson joked she's a Republican, depending on the day, but could be looking for farm opportunities in Canada as well. "I just think we have to all sit down and get serious about voting for someone who can move us forward," she said. "I'm not seeing it in Donald Trump. I'm not seeing it in Bernie Sanders. It's time to get serious and agriculture has to ask some hard questions to those people who are running."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris Clayton@dtn.com
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