Agriculture in the primary: Are the topics important to farmers and ranchers important to the presidential candidates? |

Agriculture in the primary: Are the topics important to farmers and ranchers important to the presidential candidates?

Is ethanol still a political giant in wake of Ted Cruz’ Iowa caucus win?

By Clay Masters, Iowa Public Radio

After Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s victory in the Iowa Caucuses many are questioning the political importance of ethanol, an industry that has long held sway in the political scene of Iowa and much of the Midwest.

Iowa is the top-producer of ethanol, the corn-based fuel, in the country. With its status as the first state that gets a crack at the presidential contest, Iowa often brings renewable fuels into the political limelight.

Support for government supports of the ethanol industry has been considered critical to wooing Iowa voters. The 2016 campaign, however, proved different.

The ethanol industry spent millions of dollars against Cruz, largely because he does not support the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the federal requirement to blend ethanol into the nation’s gasoline supply. From a blitz of ad spending to campaign talking points, ethanol was in the campaign news cycle.

Biofuels policy gave Donald Trump, Cruz’s chief rival in the Iowa polls, for instance, plenty of ammunition against Cruz during campaign stops.

“So the oil people are funding him and they don’t want ethanol,” Trump said at a January campaign stop. “Your ethanol business if Ted Cruz gets in will be wiped out within 6 months to a year. It’s going to be gone.”

Still, Cruz emerged from Iowa with a win in the polls, 28 percent of the caucus vote and eight delegates to the Republican National Convention.

For his part, Cruz told Iowa Public Radio late last year that he favors getting rid of all energy subsidies and mandates.

“I don’t think we should have Washington picking winners and losers,” Cruz said. “That when you have politicians putting in place a mandate, what it ends up doing is empowering those politicians. And so I believe we should phase out the ethanol mandate and I’ve introduced legislation to do that.”

In the end, 12 of the 14 candidates in the Republican field supported the RFS. All twelve lost to Cruz. While that may damper ethanol’s hold on politics in Hawkeye State, it doesn’t sound its death-knell as a political issue.

Despite Cruz’s caucus victory, Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad, seems to think that ethanol remains a political heavyweight in his state.

“Unless he changes his position on renewable energy,” Branstad said, “I don’t think he has much of a chance to win here in a general election.”

Branstad didn’t endorse a candidate in the Republican field, but campaigned against Cruz and his lack of support for ethanol.

Most presidential candidates still don’t want to take on ethanol, says Tim Cheung, an analyst with ClearView Energy Partners.

“The top-10 corn producing states in the country were responsible for about 100 electoral votes, or more than one-third of the vote you need to take the White House,” Cheung said. “So in that context, we don’t think its position across the country has changed just because of [the Iowa Republican Caucuses.]”

It’s clear now that a lack of support for the ethanol industry won’t necessarily lose a candidate the Iowa Republican Caucuses. What’s less clear is what that means for Midwest corn and soybean producers that have depended on the ethanol industry to buoy farm prices.

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Where’s the ag politics talk — and why should we care?

By Nikki Work and Bridgett Weaver

In a primary race that started with more than a dozen candidates and countless issues, agricultural topics haven’t cropped up into the forefront of the discussion. Even before the Iowa caucus, in a state where more than 20 percent of the jobs come from agriculture, the only ag topic weathering the political storm was ethanol.

On Super Tuesday, the day which 15 states — including Colorado — have their caucus or primary, will agricultural issues start playing a larger role?

“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.”

Greg Perry, professor and head of the department of Agriculture and Resource Economics at Colorado State University, said it’s not so much that agricultural issues haven’t been discussed as the issues that impact ag aren’t being discussed under that umbrella.

“I think those are discussions that have been going on,” Perry said. “(Ag issues) are part of a larger, national conversation.”

For example, oil, gas and energy have all been big players in the discussion, and the well-being of the ethanol industry plays a huge role in corn prices, Perry said. Immigration has been another hot-button topic for the presidential candidates, and one that immediately impacts ag producers, since many use immigrant labor. Trade agreements, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, also directly impact farmers and ranchers.

That said, Colorado politicians, like Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., think that it’s important for farmers and ranchers to always be aware of how often their industry is being represented. Gardner said he’s seen ag get fewer and fewer mentions in presidential politics in recent years.

“I think farmers and ranchers should always be worried when there’s not much discussion of agriculture,” he said. “The backbone of (Colorado’s) economy is and will remain agriculture, and so anytime you have an election at the presidential level where that’s getting short shrift, that’s a concern.”

Agriculture is a staple for Colorado’s voters, said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. Discussion on issues like conservation, crop insurance and funding for rural communities are, in his experience, at the front of his constituents’ minds.

“In contrast to Washington, which remains focused on partisan bickering and political games, Colorado’s agriculture community has worked hard and been resilient in the face of major challenges. The industry adds $40 billion to our state’s economy annually and continues to be one of our greatest financial drivers,” Bennet said. “Colorado farmers and ranchers play a critical role in our state’s economic success and are an essential part of our history, culture and values. Our office regularly works with producers from Walsh to Hayden, from Eaton to the San Luis Valley to ensure they have a voice in the decision making process.”

Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., pointed out several important issues to the ag community that are being discussed in the presidential race, like the Waters of the U.S. rule and other federal regulations.

To get a better understanding of where each presidential candidate stands on ag, as well as how often they’ve brought it up in the primary, The Fence Post looked into the records and the current politics of each of the remaining seven candidates.


Bernie Sanders

By Kelly Ragan

Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., has votes relating to agriculture dating back to 1993, according to He helped pass the 2014 Farm Bill and has built agriculture into his presidential campaign.

If elected:

According to, Sanders plans to tackle several agricultural issues. If president, he would

• ensure family farms, rural economies thrive,

• expand support for young and beginning farmers,

• produce an abundant and nutritious food supply,

• establish ongoing regeneration of soil and

• partner with farmers to promote conservation, stewardship and to combat climate change.

Sanders said he plans to fight for small and midsized farms, encourage growth of regional food systems, reverse trade policies like NAFTA and enforce antitrust laws against large agribusiness and food corporations.

As far as rural services, Sanders said he plans to improve the electric grid, invest in broadband and high-speed Internet and improve dams and levees.


In 2012, Sanders proposed an amendment to the farm bill that would allow states to require genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled, according to a press release.

Sanders does not believe GMOs are inherently bad, according to his website. He does believe consumers have the right to know what they are buying, especially given that food labels already require more than 3,000 ingredients to be listed, including gluten, high-fructose corn syrup, trans-fat, MSG and aspartame.

“All over this country, people are becoming more conscious about the foods they are eating and the foods they are serving to their kids, and this is certainly true for genetically engineered foods,” Sanders said in the release. “I believe that when a mother goes to the store and purchases food for her child, she has the right to know what she is feeding her child.”

Sanders stressed that labeling GMOs would not increase costs to consumers.


Also in 2012, Sanders disapproved of the EPA Emissions Standards Rule. He called for continued reduction in pollution via coal-burning plants.

“If we invest — if the utility industries will invest in pollution controls, we can create almost 300,000 jobs a year for the next 5 years — meaningful, good-

paying jobs making sure that our air is cleaner and that our people do not get sick,” Sanders said.

A desire to reduce use of coal could stimulate increased demand for ethanol.


Sanders voted in favor of a bill that prohibited farm subsidies to individuals making over $1 million, which passed. He voted against limiting farm subsidies to individuals with incomes under $250,000, which did not pass, and $750,000, which did pass.

Sanders also voted to pass the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013, which amended the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to repeal direct payments to farmers and amended crop insurance programs. This amendment authorized farmers to purchase additional crop insurance coverage beginning no later than the 2014 crop year in cases of individual or area yield and loss basis, or with an individual yield and loss basis supplemented with coverage based on an area yield loss basis to cover part of the deductible under the individual yield and loss insurance plan policy.


Donald Trump

By Samantha Fox

Trump has avoided agriculture topics, but some opposed to Trump said his immigration stance might be a problem.

A Politico story said immigration might hurt farmers because it takes away the workers.

“Roughly 1.4 million undocumented immigrants work on U.S. farms each year, or about 60 percent of the agricultural labor force,” said Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farm Cooperatives, a trade group, and former deputy agriculture secretary during the George W. Bush administration in the story.

In support, he has received $19,063 from Agribusinesses for his campaign, according to

On Oct. 22, 2015, Trump retweeted, “@mygreenhippo #BenCarson is now leading in the #polls in #Iowa. Too much #Monsanto in the #corn creates issues in the brain? #Trump #GOP”.


John Kasich

By Samantha Fox

Following trend with some candidates, there is not a lot of focus on agriculture in the Kasich campaign. However, during Kasich’s time in Washington and as Ohio’s governor, there is more history between agriculture politics and the candidate.

During his time in the House of Representatives, which ended in 2000, he voted against subsidies for tobacco crops. This was a proposed amendment to the “Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1998.”

He voted in favor of phasing out price support programs for peanuts and sugar companies. This was opposite his stance on a similar amendment concerning dairy products.

As governor, he helped eliminate the state’s death tax, which gave tax relief to small business owners, including farmers and ag business workers.

These efforts in Ohio led being named a “Friend of Agriculture” by Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s Agriculture for Good Government Political Action Committee, according to the website,

In support, he has received $74,450 from Agribusinesses for his campaign, according to


Ben Carson

By Samantha Fox

Carson has talked very little about agriculture during his campaign. An interview with RFD TV, part of the Rural Media Group, Inc. in Nebraska, gave more insight into the candidate’s agriculture-based opinions than on any other platform. But, he did address the agriculture industry outside of the interview at the CNN Republican debate Sept. 16. The issue was immigration, but Carson expressed it directly affects farmers.

“After we seal the borders, after we turn off the spigot that dispenses all the goodies … people who had a pristine record, we should consider allowing them to become guest workers, primarily in the agricultural sphere,” Carson said. “If they don’t do it within that time period, then they become illegal, and as illegals they will be treated as such.”

Carson said farm owners would struggle to find laborers if it wasn’t for foreign-born employees.

Following a Sept. 10 talk Carson had with the Commonwealth Club of California, used an anecdote from the talk.

“I was talking to a farmer in South Dakota, who has a 8,000-acre farm. He starts his workers out at $11,” Carson said. “He said he could not hire a single American, not one. …That farming industry would collapse,” he added. “If they are hard-working people and they have a clean record and they are contributing, I don’t feel it’s practical to round them up and throw them all out.”

Carson said in his talk with RFD TV that he owns 48-acres of land in Maryland. He leases the land out to people who grow corn and soybeans. He also hit on the topics of youth in agriculture and GMOs.

For the young people, Carson said education should to be a priority. He said he wants those in rural access to have high speed internet and for the youth to keep up with the changing technology farmers use.

As for GMOs, Carson said in the interview said he supports labels on food so people know exactly what they are eating.

In support, he has received $339,992 from agribusinesses for his campaign, according to


Hillary Clinton

By Allison Dyer Bluemel

Former Secretary of State and democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has votes relating to agriculture dating back to 2001, according to

She has most recently come out against the building of Keystone XL pipeline. Clinton supports the funding of development of renewable energy and the federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, based on research done by

If elected:

According to, if elected she will

• strengthen rural economies by investing in infrastructure and expanding access to credit and venture capital,

• raise agricultural production and profitability for family farms and

• promote clean energy leadership and collaborative stewardship.

“I believe a strong America depends on strong rural communities,” she said in August 2015. “For prosperity to be real and lasting, it has to take root … in small towns and in rural areas across the county.”

Rural investment

Clinton believes many small and midsized businesses in rural communities are held back by inadequate infrastructure, poor access to credit and capital and insufficient incentives to invest.

She would expand access to equity capital for businesses, expand the New Markets Tax Credit and create a national bank to improve transportation, water and broadband infrastructure in rural areas.

“We have more than 40 million Americans living in small towns in rural America,” she said at an Iowa speech last August. “You don’t ignore that, you figure out what we’re going to do to grow together.”

She would focus on increasing and adoption of high-speed broadband access “so rural small businesses can better connect to the global economy, farmers and ranchers can benefit from agricultural technology and students can benefit from distance learning.”

Clinton would increase funding to support the next generation of farmers and ranchers, invest in expanding local food markets and regional food systems and provide a safety net to assist family operations during hard times.

She voted against a funding amendment that would have directed $6 million from the Commodity Credit Corporation to an agricultural transportation cooperative that provides loans to Hawaii sugarcane growers in 2006.


She believes that America must build clean energy leadership in rural areas that will grow the economy, lower energy bills and combat climate change.

Clinton would fully fund a program that provides assistance to producers who conserve and improve natural resources on their farms, strengthen the Renewable Fuel Standard and double loan guarantees that support the bio-based economy.


To ensure job success, Clinton would double funding for Early Head Start and make pre-K education universal for four year olds, enact free community college and support telemedicine and Medicaid expansion.

She called for comprehensive immigration reform to level the field of agricultural workers, according to an August speech in Iowa.


Clinton voted in favor of an amended to HR 2419 – Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 that would have limited the amount of subsidies that married couples deriving a portion of their income from farming or related activities could receive.


Clinton supports GMOs and was the paid keynote speaker for the world’s largest GMO trade association – the Biotechnology Industry Organization – in 2014, according to


Ted Cruz

By Allison Dyer Bluemel

Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has agriculture votes dating back to 2013.

If elected:

Agriculture is not a dedicated issue on Cruz’s campaign website, however according to, if elected he would

• push for reform to “unleash economic prosperity” by adopting an energy plan that embraces the Great American Energy Renaissance,

• advocate for an all-of-the-above energy approach,

• approve the Keystone Pipeline and other similar infrastructures and empower the private sector to create good-paying American jobs and

• harness the nation’s energy resources and remove federal impediments to energy exploration, development and trade.


During the seventh Republican presidential primary debate in January, Cruz expressed opposition to energy subsidies and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I think God has blessed this county with enormous natural resources and we should pursue all of the above,” he said.

He advocates for a flat tax plan that would eliminate every mandate and subsidy.

He voted against HR 2642 – The Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act that would have amended the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, repealed direct payments to farmers, amended crop insurance programs and amended dairy programs.


Cruz has come out against ethanol mandates and would “tear down the EPA’s blend wall which will enable ethanol to expand its market share by up to 60 percent, all without mandates,” he said.


Cruz has criticized “anti-science zealotry” from the left on GMOs, citing that families who don’t want to feed their families GMOs have the option to shop organic in the market and that shouldn’t deter the ability to produce low-cost, quality food, according to Politico.


Marco Rubio

By Kelly Ragan

Senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has votes in agriculture dating back to 2011.

If elected:

According to, Rubio, if elected, will focus primarily on deregulation. He plans to target the EPA’s Waters of the U.S. Rule, fight against current carbon mandates and excessive application of the Endangered Species Act.

His plan for deregulation involves setting a cap on the costs federal regulations could impose on the economy. His proposal would also set a cap on each agency.


Rubio voted against Bernie Sanders’ bill which would allow states to require labels on GMO products.


Rubio generally opposes agricultural subsidies.

In 2012, he voted to prohibit subsides to farmers making more than $1 million and also voted in favor of an amendment that would limit benefits to farmers whose average adjusted gross income was less than $250,000.

He voted against increasing funding for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.

Rubio is, however, tied to sugar subsidies.

According to the National Review, Rubio insists sugar subsidies are necessary because if they are removed, “other countries will capture the market share, our agricultural capacity will be developed into real estate, you know, housing and so forth, and then we lose the capacity to produce our own food, at which point we’re at the mercy of a foreign country for food security.”

He voted against the passage of the Agricultural Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013, which amended the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to repeal direct payments to farmers and amended crop insurance programs. It authorized farmers to purchase additional crop insurance coverage.


Rubio was part of a bipartisan team that unveiled an immigration framework in Jan. 2013, according to That framework would create a path to residency and citizenship for undocumented immigrants, giving special consideration to farm workers, among other groups.

Rubio called for an agricultural program that would allow seasonal and year round labor to be contracted legally.

“Agriculture has always required a significant workforce from abroad, but we do not have a system through which growers and dairies can bring a workforce legally into the U.S.,” Rubio wrote in a blog post for


In an interview with Farm Policy, Rubio talked about the importance of protecting farmland from development.

“The problem with losing agriculture is when you lose agricultural land and it becomes developable now because it becomes the highest, best use, you can never get it back,” Rubio said. “Once someone builds a multifamily housing complex on a piece of agricultural land, you can never come back ten years later and turn it back into farming. And that’s a major problem. You lose the capacity to grow food and to feed your people.”


Ethanol aside, presidential candidates aren’t talking ag…even in Iowa

By Amy Mayer, Harvest Public Media

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.

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.”

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.

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