GRINNELL, Iowa (DTN) -- Six Democratic presidential candidates laid out variations of their farm policy on Friday to members of the Iowa Farmers Union. Each looked in different ways to push policy more to the left by breaking up major agribusinesses and shifting the direction of farm subsidies.
With 18 candidates running for president and campaigning across the nation, Iowa right now is the center of attention for a core group who see the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses on Feb. 3 as the critical starting point in the Democratic primaries.
Candidates who addressed the Iowa Farmers Union forum offered plans about how they would tackle what they see as growing monopolies. Consolidation within agriculture has become a major theme among Democrats seeking to reach out to farmers who feel agribusinesses have not only gotten too big, but also too foreign. German-based Bayer now owns Monsanto, a Chinese company owns Smithfield Foods, and two Brazilian packers now own JBS and control National Beef.
"I think consolidation issues reach across the wide spectrum of farmers from big to small, from left to right, from farm product to farm product," said Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union. "I think that is one of the unifying issues that we have to address in this nation in a meaningful way."
Reducing corporate consolidation in agriculture is a big part of Sen. Cory Booker's new plan for rural America. The New Jersey senator also has a piece of legislation to place a moratorium on agribusiness mergers and tighten antitrust enforcement.
"We are having independent family farmers being run out of business, the very culture and heritage of our country," he said.
Booker added that, right now, USDA is not enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act.
"What we have in the agriculture sector now is not free-market capitalism."
Booker went on to say family farmers pay into programs such as the beef checkoff, but the board "is being controlled by multi-national corporations." He added, "This has got to stop. There is no accountability for those resources."
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said he would appoint an attorney general "who understands antitrust law." Sanders also said he would put in a moratorium on major agribusiness mergers, as well as "break up agribusiness monopolies who have devastated agriculture across this nation."
While all the candidates got some level of applause, the cheers were louder for Sanders, and he got some standing ovations when he came in. Sanders then stressed his agricultural policy would be focused on "family based agriculture."
Sanders also criticized farm program payments going to larger farmers. He said 77% of farm program payments right now go to roughly 10% of farms. Sanders said he would reverse the situation so farm programs support smaller farmers.
"Subsidies will go to farmers who need it the most and farmers who are doing the most important work, and that is not factory farmers," Sanders said, though he offered no definition for what is considered a family farm or a factory farm.
Hitting on another issue close to Farmers Union, Sanders talked about the prospects of supply management to address income woes. Sanders pointed out as many as 25% of dairies in Vermont had gone out of business over the past decade. He pointed to the supply management focus in Canada when it comes to dairies.
"By and large, their farmers are doing very well, and their prices are almost double per hundredweight."
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said consolidation is squeezing farmers financially. More attention needs to be paid to farm income issues for reasons of food security, heritage and economic development growth in rural America, he said. And Buttigieg criticized Trump's trade negotiations.
"Look at the money the president is throwing around with the problem he created with the trade deals," Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg also was one of the few who brought up EPA granting waivers to major oil refiners. Those waivers, Buttigieg said, have damaged a key agricultural market.
"A lot of this is just personnel and policy, and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency is a coal lobbyist," he said.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar provided a more moderate tone on farm policy, saying she would "bring sanity in trade" and foreign policy. She criticized how Trump's trade policy put farmers at the center of retaliation.
"The way I see this is he is literally treating our farmers like poker chips in one of his bankrupt casinos," Klobuchar said. "I would go back to the negotiating table with China and I would, of course, make sure we have fairness with our trade, but I would have much more focus."
Klobuchar added she would avoid complicating talks with a "tweet cleaver."
Dave Frederickson, former agriculture secretary in Minnesota and a supporter of Klobuchar, acknowledged some Democratic candidates "risk alienating some people," by their stances. Frederickson also said the core issue in agriculture remains the economy.
"I think the work we do on mental health for farmers shows we really need to spend more time on economic health," Frederickson said.
Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, who helped moderate the forum with Lehman, said his members nationally are increasingly worried about how much agribusinesses are growing.
"Consolidation is a huge issue with our members all over," Johnson said. "In fact, surprisingly, it may be one of all those issues where there is unanimity on. It's the one issue our members all agree upon, that there is too little competition in the industry, there's too much concentration and farmers are left at the short end of the stick as a consequence."
Johnson said he doesn't think candidates "plowed any new ground," but what comes across is that issues NFU has prioritized over the past several years are being brought up more by the candidates themselves. That largely didn't happen as much in 2016, partially because there were just a couple Democratic candidates in the race, Johnson said.
"Last time around, you didn't have this big field of Democrats, so you didn't have this kind of opportunity for debate," Johnson said. "You saw more on the other (Republican) side. It's been a long time since the Democrats have had this kind of wide-open kind of field. It's nice to have this in Iowa because it's so agricultural."
Another issue resonating with Farmers Union and Democratic candidates is climate change.
Businessman Tom Steyer, who has made climate change the center of his campaign, said an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Steyer highlighted the flooding in western Iowa over the past decade.
"It's not like climate change isn't in Iowa right now and having an impact," Steyer said.
Steyer said he would "declare a state of emergency on day one" in office. He too would focus on paying farmers to sequester carbon, but Steyer also stressed that investing in a green economy could stimulate the U.S. economy.
"We can do it in a way to make Americans richer," he said. "We can create millions of jobs."
Klobuchar said she would return the U.S. to the Paris climate agreement and bring back the Obama Clean Power rule. She said she would also reward farmers for practices that sequester carbon and rattled off the USDA conservation acronyms -- CRP, CSP and EQIP -- pointing out former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was one of her mentors on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
"Your support for moving on this is going to be critical," Klobuchar said, adding that too many voices on climate change come from the coasts and not cropland or the Midwest.
Klobuchar also talked about a homeowner from Pacific Junction, Iowa, looking at the roof of her home underwater due to floods. By ignoring climate change, President Trump is driving up the costs for average Americans to buy homeowners insurance, she said.
Klobuchar said the country should get to carbon neutral by 2050. "We're all pretty much on board with that on the Democratic debate stage."
Buttigieg said the U.S. must have a president in 2020 to deal with emission goals for 2030 and beyond.
"If we don't have a president who cares by 2020 -- to act aggressively in the 2020s -- there is no way to meet targets by 2030 and beyond," he said.
Booker's new plan calls for investing $100 billion through 2030 for farmers to address climate change by taking existing USDA conservation programs and "doubling down on investments" in the programs. Booker also drew significant applause by talking about environmental justice.
"If we are going to solve this problem of climate change, we are never going to get there by vilifying entire sectors of the economy and people across the aisle," he said. Booker added, "Farmers will be the salvation of this country's environmental problems."
Sanders said scientists have acknowledged they underestimated the degree and severity of climate change. He said it is a major crisis, and politicians who ignore it are "literally threatening the future of our children and future generations." He also credited Iowa for its investment in wind turbines and biofuels.
In agriculture, Sanders said he too would focus on carbon sequestration.
"What we will do is we will pay farmers to capture carbon," Sanders said. "Right now, that is not the case."
Sanders said paying farmers for carbon sequestration "would be an enormous contribution to reducing climate change."
Speaking just a night earlier at an organic agricultural event, Sanders also pointed out that organic agriculture is now a $50 billion industry as more consumers are worried about pesticide use and how their food is grown. Sanders later added, "If we are really serious about fighting climate change, all of agriculture should be organic."
A couple of national frontrunners, former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, did not attend the Iowa Farmers Union event. Warren wasn't campaigning in Iowa last week, but Biden toured the state on his "No Malarkey" tour.
At an event in Ames, Iowa, a state senator who introduced Biden noted farm income peaked in 2013 under the Obama administration, and now relies more heavily on government payments under Trump.
Biden pointed out 44% of Iowa farmers were unable to pay their basic bills. He said that's a reflection of the real trouble facing the middle class in rural America.
"There's something going on here with the middle class," Biden said. "We have to have the middle class stay in rural America."
Biden also touched on the value rural America can play in addressing climate change.
"Agriculture can be the first industry in America to get to zero emissions," he said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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