Elected officials talk farm policy on the campaign trail

Aug 19, 2012

Thirty-five farmers and agricultural workers applauded at the site of Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill’s big blue RV pulling up to the back of AGRI Services on Wednesday. The campaign stop at the massive granary and fertilizer distributor on the banks of the Missouri River in Brunswick, Mo. is part of the Democratic incumbent senator’s "Fighting for our Farmers" project. The six-day state-wide tour devoted to her rural constituents is part of a strategy to beat US Representative Todd Akin in November.

In a sailor shirt and jeans, McCaskill jumped out of the RV into the 95-degree midday heat and got straight to her talking points: passing the Farm Bill, getting broadband internet access to rural areas, keeping small post offices open and protecting agricultural jobs by preventing federal farm dust regulations from passing.

“My dad had a feed mill in Houston, Texas County where I grew up so I understand rural Missouri,” she said. “When I heard that somebody was thinking about a regulation on farm dust I said, ‘Well, clearly they have no idea what farming is about in this country … So I went to work making sure that regulation was stopped.”

Sen. McCaskill’s not the only elected official courting farmers these days. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney announced his “Farmers and Ranchers for Romney” coalition on Wednesday. A few days earlier, President Barack Obama spoke to constituents in Iowa about passing the Farm Bill.

“The best way to help these states is for the folks in Congress to pass a Farm Bill that not only helps farmers and ranchers respond to natural disasters but also makes some necessary reforms and gives farmers and ranchers some long-term certainty,” President Obama said.

Political scientists and agricultural economists agree all elected officials campaign for farmers' votes during election years. But this is the most attention they’ve seen farmers get in decades.

“This isn’t really a new phenomenon but it’s probably more intense now,” said Dr. Neil Harl, who's been teaching economics and agriculture at Iowa State University for more than 40 years. “At least I can’t remember an election cycle and I’ve been watching it since the 1936 election when [Alf] Landon ran against [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt.”

Dr. Darryl Ray, who heads up the University of Tennessee Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, says two things have made this election cycle so focused on farm policy: the Farm Bill, which is the $960 billion piece of agricultural legislation set to expire on September 30, and the drought that’s dried up so much of the Midwest.

“What we’re looking at this time around is a tremendous increase in the amount of money that’s going to go to farmers from insurance,” said Dr. Ray.

The drought and July’s searing heat, which has ruined much of farmers’ corn and soybean crops and has put a severe strain on livestock producers, could mean up to $20 billion will be paid out to grain farmers in crop insurance subsidies, according to Dr. Ray. Insurance companies will be footing most of that bill, but not all of it.

“There will be a significant amount that will come from the federal government,” he said. “And this is, you know, not a good time for talking about additional expenditures for any group of folks. So it’s a tense time for lots of politicians.”

When billions of taxpayer dollars are at stake, elected officials take note. But it remains to be seen whether talking about farm and agricultural issues on the campaign trail will pay off for politicians like Sen. Claire McCaskill. She's still trailing her opponent 11 points, according to the latest polling numbers.

Wayne Foster, who is at Sen. McCaskill's campaign stop in Brunswick, rows 1,800 acres of corn and soybeans in Sheridan, Mo. He plans to vote for McCaskill but understands that talk alone about farm issues won’t settle anything.

“It’s tough, no two ways about it,” said Foster. “It takes – I shouldn’t say this – it takes a lot of money in the right place.”

With two months of campaigning left and with the fallout of the drought still yet to be fully realized, voters can expect to hear much more farm and agricultural policy talk on the campaign trail.