Harvest Public Media
12:00 am
Wed December 21, 2011

Republican candidates give agriculture short shrift in Iowa

Presidential politics are in full flare in Iowa, as evidenced by the wave of dueling TV ads, and Republican candidate appearances at local businesses and churches. But leading up to the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses, something seems to be missing.

By Kathleen Masterson.

Considering that this region is known for its agriculture industry, candidates have been fairly silent on farm, food and fuel issues.  And that's even with a looming farm bill yet to be written and federal ethanol supports set to expire in several weeks.  

"The candidates have major concerns with regard to the situation of the country as a whole, in terms of the housing bubble and the job situation, so the problem is much broader than a particular sectoral problem like agriculture," said political analyst Dennis Goldford of Drake University in Des Moines.

Not only that, but agriculture is doing pretty well. Farmers are seeing high commodity prices, record grain exports and rising farmland values.

"To a great extent, whatever economic difficulties we have are certainly not like what we had in Iowa in the mid-1980s; that was a real farm crisis," Goldford said.  "And we just saw the other day an acre of land go for $20,000…. times are pretty good."

Midwestern farmers certainly have concerns about how national policies will affect them.  Iowa's position as the first caucus state usually allows farmers to draw the candidates — and the nation's — attention to key agriculture issues, said farmer Mark Jacobson, who serves on the board of the American Soybean Association. 

"Agriculture is approximately 25 percent of the economy in Iowa," Jacobson said, noting that half his soybean crops are exported all around the world. "So these are critical issues that we have to make sure that (candidates) understand, because the complexity of agriculture today isn't my grandfather's agriculture." 

Jacobson said farmers are concerned about free trade agreements, and a pending Department of Labor ruling that would severely limit what tasks children can do on a farm.  Farmers also are concerned about immigration policy, because for many that's their labor pool. 

With the next farm bill coming up in a year, Midwestern farmers are pushing for continued federal support for crop insurance, their safety net.  Some farmers also bring up the estate tax because of general concern of passing on the family farm on to their children. And though views vary, ethanol is an ever-present issue.

The candidates' relative silence on agriculture issues lays in stark contrast to the last two Iowa caucuses. Previously,winning candidates in Iowa came through the state praising corn-based ethanol. 

But this election season, ethanol isn't coming up nearly as much — even though some federal supports are set to expire shortly and several candidates have come out against subsidies for the bio-fuel.

The Iowa Corn Growers Association did issue a report card  on the Republican candidates. The only candidate who really flunks on agriculture issues is Michele Bachman (well, they gave her a "D+"), and this was mostly for her views on ethanol and an issue dear to farmers hearts: bolstering their crop insurance safety net.  Ron Paul also got a "D" overall for similar reasons; he doesn't believe in government subsidies for businesses, including the ag industry. 

Newt Gingrich was the first candidate to participate in a town hall forum phone call organized by the Iowa Soybean Association. Several farmers who listened in said they were impressed with his attitude and approach, even though there were some agriculture issues he admitted he didn't know much about. Rick Perry is the only other candidate to have so far taken the group up on their offer, and he discussed his plan to secure U.S. borders with force, to eliminate all energy subsidies, and to keep the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating farmers.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whom some analysts call the only viable national candidate, hadn't really focused on Iowa until recent months. And still hasn't said much on agriculture. 

The idea that Romney could not win Iowa and could still win the Republican nomination concerns some, because it would mean Iowa is becoming less important.

"It's the one time in every four years ... that Iowa can get some of its agricultural issues to the forefront," said farmer Scott McGregor of Nashua, Iowa.

So even though most Iowa farm groups haven’t endorsed a candidate, they work hard to get exposure with each of the presidential hopefuls.  As McGregor said, this is their chance to explain to them the complexities of agriculture and hope they'll remember the sector when in the White House.

Kathleen Masterson reports for Harvest Public Media, an agriculture-reporting project involving six NPR member stations in the Midwest. For more stories about farm and food, check out harvestpublicmedia.org.