Iowa Ag Summit: Candidates need more than a checklist

Source: By Kathie Obradovich, Des Moines Register • Posted: Thursday, March 5, 2015

Presidential candidates need to do more than just wear a seed-corn cap and get their eggs in the right baskets on farm issues to impress Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and other Iowa voters.

“I wouldn’t want somebody to just walk in and say, ‘I’m against California on eggs, I’m for RFS,’ and just check the boxes trying to get the positions right,” Northey, a Republican, said. “They better explain why … and they should be able to fit that into their overall philosophy of government, if they’ve thought through those things.”

About a dozen potential GOP presidential candidates will be put to the test Saturday at the Iowa Ag Summit, a daylong forum at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. Northey will be leaving Saturday on a U.S. Department of Agriculture trip to Asia and will miss most of the summit. But, he said, he’ll follow it closely. 

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Red Oak, is planning to attend. She said she wants to hear potential candidates encouraging support for more types of voluntary soil and water conservation practices and nutrient management.

What’s important to her, she said, is “knowing that they understand that these are important to not just Iowa but all of our agricultural communities across the United States and hoping that they understand that again, a one-size-fits-all approach from the federal government does not work for every state.”

For those who don’t know, California has banned the sale of eggs from states like Iowa that don’t meet its standards for the minimum size of cages for hens. The Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS, sets a minimum for how many billions of gallons of renewable energy such as ethanol is blended into motor fuel. The fact that there are Iowa voters who don’t know this suggests neither issue will doom a presidential candidate who checks the wrong box.

Even an unpopular position like opposing the RFS, as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas does, isn’t disqualifying if a candidate can clearly explain his position and offer sincere support and alternative ideas for ensuring ethanol has market access. That doesn’t mean candidates should try to look Gov. Terry Branstad in the eye and claim ethanol raises food prices. Northey says while some in the audience won’t be satisfied with anything less than a mandate for 15 billion gallons of ethanol, others can accept an explanation that amounts to more than just a stick in the eye for the sake of looking independent.

“For the most part, I think people use this as part of their ongoing analysis, rather than saying this is a make or break, by any means,” Northey said. He expects candidates’ fluency on ag issues to grow with time on the campaign trail, as they travel the state and talk with farmers and agribusiness operators.

What does hurt is if a candidate gets caught trying to pretend that playing Farmville on their phones somehow makes them the next John Deere. The gaffes stand out like Gucci loafers at the Iowa State Fair.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Ia., asked what might be a red flag for him that a candidate doesn’t know agriculture, mentioned former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. “The fact that Dukakis in 1988 thought that we ought to grow endives in Iowa,” Grassley said.

Dukakis, a Democrat, suggested Iowa farmers grow Belgian endive as an alternative crop to corn and soybeans. Another Massachusetts Democrat, John Kerry, told me in 2003 that he’d like to drive a thresher through an Iowa cornfield. Those enormous machines that Iowans use to pick corn are called combines. Then there’s Barack Obama, who commiserated with Iowans at an Adel farm in 2007 about the price of arugula at Whole Foods. At the time, the upscale market hadn’t moved into Iowa.

Iowans don’t expect every candidate to have intimate knowledge of the crop insurance program (or have hands-on experience castrating hogs). But Northey says ignorance reads as lack of interest, because candidates have had plenty of time to reach out to experts if they want to know more.

“If somebody’s just blowing smoke on an issue, you can just kind of tell they’re just winging it and pretending like they know what’s going on,” he said. “To me, that’s a red flag not just about agriculture, but that’s a red flag to me about everything else they’re talking about.”