Iowa Caucuses Are First, but There’s Little Talk About Agricultural Issues

For almost a year, presidential candidates have been crisscrossing Iowa, wooing voters in a state that relies on agriculture for about one-third of its economy. But even here, most voters live in cities or suburbs and don’t have a first-hand connection to the farm.

Chandler Simatovich lays with Ida, a Brown Swiss cow from his family farm, at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015. The Iowa State Fair expected to host 18 presidential candidates.

Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Chandler Simatovich lays with Ida, a Brown Swiss cow from his family farm, at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015. The Iowa State Fair expected to host 18 presidential candidates.

That makes it difficult to get candidates talking about food system issues from school lunches, to crop supports, to water quality. Yet these all fall under the federal agriculture department. If candidates aren’t talking about them in Iowa, it’s possible they’ll be left out of the campaigns entirely.

Iowa State University political scientist Mack Shelley says candidates have to balance local appeal and modern concerns with an agenda that will resonate nationwide. So on the trail, the closest many candidates get to our food system is trying out famous fair food on a stick.

“You have candidates showing up at the state fair,” Shelley said. “Sometimes they go to pig races and they hang around on hay bales and farms and, not that that’s necessarily typical of Iowa, but to attract support within the state you kind of have to start there and build out from that point.”

While many of the presidential campaigns have published platforms that touch on food and agriculture issues, often in a set of issues targeted at rural America, they’re not often among talking points on the stump or in debates.

There is one agriculture issue all politicians talk about in Iowa: ethanol.

“We’ve been very pleased with how attentive the candidates have been to Iowa’s farmers,” said Derek Eadon of the lobbying group America’s Renewable Future. “It’s exciting and, I think, shows the strength of the issue.”

Many Iowans take their role as first-in-the-nation voters during the presidential nominating process very seriously. This barn in Central Iowa is just one among many, many farmscapes displaying support for a presidential candidate.

Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

Many Iowans take their role as first-in-the-nation voters during the presidential nominating process very seriously. This barn in Central Iowa is just one among many, many farmscapes displaying support for a presidential candidate.

Eadon says his group gave only Ted Cruz and Rand Paul “bad” ratings on support for the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal law that props up the ethanol industry. All three Democrats and the rest of the Republicans got a “good” rating.

Ethanol is a natural fit on the campaign trail because it links early-voting Iowa with Corn Belt neighbors like Illinois and Nebraska. Shelley says that regional-reach is in the job description for the first four state contests: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

“They’re in some sense meant to be representative of the Midwest or the Northeast or the Southeast or the West,” Shelley said.

Even though most candidates express support for ethanol, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re paying attention to other concerns farmers have. After all, there’s a lot more to our food system than renewable fuels.

“The agricultural issues are probably going to be the deciding factor in most caucuses for me,” said Aaron Lehman, a farmer in rural Polk County, Iowa.

Lehman says he wants to hear candidates’ views on the farm safety net, trade and conservation, but those don’t often come up when candidates are talking to the national TV cameras that have followed them around Iowa.

“Agricultural issues aren’t automatically going to bubble to the top,” Lehman said, “even here in Iowa.”

Lehman meets candidates and asks campaigns directly about the issues he cares about. That’s something Iowans are uniquely poised to do.

Some say a specific agriculture agenda isn’t necessary because farms are not very different from other businesses.

“We need fair access to markets, we need a stable economy, we need to deal with currency issues and currency manipulation,” said Kirk Leeds, CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association, as he delineated the list of issues that matter most to the soybean growers he represents.

Any business interest, Leeds says, would make a very similar list. Still, when Leeds threw his personal support behind Marco Rubio, the Florida senator’s campaign included him on a list of endorsements from agricultural leaders.

At a recent campaign stop in Ames, Hillary Clinton’s nod to agriculture was, predictably, a mention of Iowa’s leadership on renewable fuels … and this passing reference from her closing remarks.

“Every single child, whether you’re the granddaughter of a factory worker or farmer,” Clinton said, “or a grandson of a trucker or teacher, you will have the opportunity to go as far as your hard work, your talent will take you.”

The speech could have worked anywhere, even with the mention of a farmer.

“I am interested in ag issues,” said voter Laura Miller, an Ames resident who attended the Clinton event. “But I haven’t heard a lot on the campaign trail about ag issues.”

“(Agriculture)’s pretty far down on the priority list,” said Larry Koehrsen, another Ames voter who was there. “Most of the candidates recognize the political sensitivity of ethanol and make some effort to deal with it. I don’t know how honest all of them are in how they deal with it.”

Koehrsen said he thought water quality and conservation deserved more attention. Unlike farmer Aaron Lehman, though, Koehrsen, a retired engineer, won’t pick a candidate based on agricultural issues. Most campaigns are more interested in the Larry Koehrsens than they are in the Aaron Lehmans.

Iowa farmers have done what they can for almost a year to convince candidates to care about agriculture. Whether their efforts will be reflected in the campaigns after caucus night may depend on how long the nominating process takes, and whether an ag-heavy state ultimately tips someone from candidate to nominee.

One thought on “Iowa Caucuses Are First, but There’s Little Talk About Agricultural Issues

  1. the key to solving this problem is switching engines over to using pure hydrous ethanol (E100) without mixing it with gasoline, which is cheap and easy to produce, not for everybody, not mandated by federal law, just legalized so competitive markets can grown on their own,, this would allow the corn and ethanol industry a way out of a market crash if the ethanol mandate is repealed,, that way the Midwest can ween itself off oil onto their own home grown fuel without screwing with the rest of our fuels while at the same time breaking ground on a new fuel industry,, this would be the natural transition they would be forced to make if the ethanol mandate no longer existed and would be better for everyone but ethanol investors on Wall Street and their lobbyists,,

    the only reason this has not happened organically is because hydrous ethanol is too cheap and easy to produce, so rather than having a complex centrally controlled anhydrous ethanol industry like they do now , small start ups could compete with the big refiners who are leading the industry now,, even so, there’s still plenty of room for them all, so really the only losers wold be the lobbyists who keep the mandate from being repealed, that all this is about, ethanol has been killing this country since May of 2006 for the benefit of a hand full of suits and ties addicted to running around Washington pulling everyone strings to keep their jobs relevant

    funny thing is they spend so much time blaming big oil for everything bad about their own totally dysfunctional mandate when their sitting on the infrastructure of an industry with the wherewithal to give big oil a run for it’s money,, what you need to do is look back at the first Model T Ford’s that could run on hydrous ethanol (moonshine) or gasoline, they came with a still in the trunk that could be set up at home in rural areas where there was no access to gasoline stations,, some even say prohibition laws against alcohol during the 1920’s and early 30’s were put there, not so much to stop the consumption of alcohol, which it didn’t do, it only popularized black markets that thugs got rich and powerful off controlling a new culture of secret speak easy bars that drew new audiences to drive ever increasing levels of alcohol consumption, much like marijuana, a cancer curing medicinal herb that gets the consumer high, being illegal draws more people to smoke it than otherwise would, by and large because young people want to see what the big deal is,,

    my point is that prohibition may have been more about big oil, which was no so big back then, not wanting to compete with hydrous ethanol, so they used their political influence to make their competitors product illegal until they had infrastructure in place to provide cheap gasoline in rural areas so distilling ethanol for fuel was no longer be feasible, yet even now as we suffer through these inane ethanol mandates, it’s the same prohibition era laws that prevent hydrous ethanol from building a competitive market today,, on that same note, diesel fuel can be produced from hemp seed, in fact when Rudolph Diesel invented the diesel engine, it was to run on vegetable oil,, but with his not wanting to turn food into a fuel, he had designs on the fuel being made from hemp seed,, this was at the same time a Senator from Texas, forgot his name, started campaigning against marijuana, which barley anyone knew about,, years later it resulted in hemp being outlawed even though it does not not have a drug effect like marijuana, it’s just a cousin that looks just like it

    if we opened up these ancient long hidden energy markets by allowing them to compete without washington deciding who wins and loses, not only would it create new good paying jobs on a massive scale, yes it would give oil a run for its money, like about as much as we import,, when they say the oil market will plunge, yeah, they might if they have to compete at the street level like everyone else, but all that means is big money will run from it so smaller investors can move in and still make a profit, that’s all we’re talking about here, multibillionaire oligarchs who control Washington giving way to millionaires, they’d be forced to search for real markets to compete in rather than raping existing ones while destroying the fabric of the country as they do it

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