Iowa farmers say agriculture, climate largely ignored in campaign

Source: Niina Heikkinen, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 28, 2016

The woman who put former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley on the spot about farming in a Democratic town hall this week says she is frustrated that agriculture has been largely ignored among the presidential hopefuls.

Jana Linderman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union, told ClimateWire yesterday that O’Malley gave a “perfectly fine answer” to her question. But, she said, the general lack of attention to agriculture among candidates is surprising, particularly since all three Democrats in the running have mentioned the importance of climate change (ClimateWire, Jan. 25).

“Climate is a big issue on the horizon for our food supply. It’s been kind of concerning that we aren’t spending time having a public dialogue on these issues,” Linderman said.

More than 90 percent of Iowa’s land is used for farming. Much of that acreage is devoted to corn and soybeans. But a growing number of smaller family farms are transitioning toward organic farming and more diversified crops to gain more value from their land, she said.

Linderman, whose nonpartisan organization focuses on supporting the interests of family farmers in a state where most available land is devoted to farming, said she’s been concerned for some time that agriculture has not been part of the presidential discussion.

“We really haven’t been hearing anything, and that’s been a concern,” she said, adding that her group had reached out to the presidential campaigns prior to the CNN-hosted debate Monday but hadn’t had much luck.

“There didn’t seem to be a high level of interest,” she said. “I think it was a lack of vision on their part.”

Talking about sustainable farming

On Monday evening, Linderman got a chance to bring farming briefly to the national limelight, when CNN used her question about support for new farmers during the town hall.

“For beginning farmers, a group that includes a growing number of veterans, women farmers like me, and other groups, we do have some opportunities with innovative business models that include more diversified farms, more sustainable farming practice, but there aren’t nearly enough of us,” she said, addressing O’Malley.

“We know that there are a lot of farmers that are going to be retiring in the next decade and there aren’t enough people to replace them. So my question is, after decades of rural out migration and farm consolidation, what can we do, what can you do, to provide opportunities and invest in a new generation of family farms for the country?” she asked.

O’Malley responded that he would work with Congress to gain more support within the farm bill to help new farmers.

“We need to do more as a nation to encourage young farmers to go into farming to reduce those barriers and those capital costs even at the same time that we push back on the concentration and monopoly power in the agricultural sector,” he said.

Campaigning on ethanol, not water

Ann Robinson, an agriculture policy specialist at the Iowa Environmental Council, said the lack of attention to agriculture seemed fairly typical for presidential campaigning in Iowa.

“One of the topics we wish they would talk about is water quality, and this is of great importance around the country,” Robinson said.

What candidates did talk a lot about instead was corn ethanol, said Bob Hemesath, president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. He agreed that candidates didn’t usually talk about agriculture broadly on the campaign trail.

Hemesath said he has personally met with almost all the presidential hopefuls since last April, mostly at town-hall-style events, where the campaigns have generally been very receptive to speaking with the Iowa Corn Growers Association.

“What we’ve been telling candidates, there has been talk about getting rid of the [EPA’s] renewable fuel standard; we want to maintain support for the RFS,” he said. “We’ve tried to talk to both sides, and we’ve gotten good responses out of most of them.”

Iowa is responsible for producing about a quarter of the country’s corn ethanol, and its production provides 73,000 jobs in the state, according to Hemesath.

Other than Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who oppose the RFS, “there isn’t really a lot of separation between the candidates. There was some separation early, but not now,” he said.

While Hemesath said he already has one particular candidate in mind to vote for, Linderman said that with so little discussion about agriculture, she isn’t sure whom she will vote for. She wishes she could have posed her question to the other candidates.

“I have to do the best I can with the information that I have,” she said.