Rural America at a crossroads in an era of turbulent policy and politics. We visit with a bipartisan pair of former U.S. Agriculture Secretaries to discuss the future of farm country on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.    

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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, October 27 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.   

Yepsen: Over the past century, economic and social struggles in rural America have evolved alongside the ebb and flow of federal farm policy and the drumbeat of demographic changes. But where are agrarian states like Iowa headed? And what, if anything, can be done to prepare us for the next chapter of policy and politics in farm country? Well, two men with a wide breadth of experience in rural America are a bipartisan pair of former USDA Secretaries. Dan Glickman was a Kansas Congressman before serving as Ag Secretary in the Clinton Administration. And republican Mike Johanns served Nebraskans as Governor and U.S. Senator with a stint as Agriculture Secretary in the George W. Bush administration in between. Gentlemen, welcome back to Iowa. And Governor, we have to remind people, this is a homecoming for you, Osage native.

Johanns: Yes it is. I grew up in Mitchell County, I sure did.

Yepsen: Thanks for being here, both of you. Across the table, James Lynch is Political Writer for the Gazette and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Governor Johanns, rural Americans feel under attack, both economically and politically. Are they correct to feel that way? And if so, how do you reverse the trends of centuries?

Johanns: There is justification for that. If you studied Iowa, for example, or Nebraska, any rural state, you'll see a number of things happening. One is the rural population is declining. Probably the vast majority of counties in this state are losing population, not gaining population. That would also be true in Nebraska, but again, true across the country. Farming became more efficient, there were fewer farmers that were required, not like the days when I grew up on that dairy farm in Mitchell County, so that's a piece of it. More access to education so young people go to the University of Iowa or the University of Northern Iowa, whatever, and they decide to stay. They like the community or they have other opportunities.

Henderson: Secretary Glickman, how do you regain some political influence in that sort of demographic situation?

Glickman: Well, there are people moving back to communities like Ames or Iowa City or others that have necessary resources in terms of health care and education and culture and a quality of life. But it is really difficult to get people to move to very small towns. For example, western Kansas, if you go west of Interstate 35, you've got about 300 miles there of monoculture agriculture, not very many cities of any size. And so if you go to college you're going to probably want to find your work and your life elsewhere and it's a real challenge. On the other hand there are opportunities in agriculture, value-added agriculture, processed agriculture and as long as the community is hooked up to the Internet and you can use your smartphones and everything else it's not totally without possibility for growth in the future.

Lynch: One of the policies in the news now that effects farm country is NAFTA, which is being renegotiated by the Trump administration. Secretary Glickman, you were there in the early days of NAFTA during the Clinton administration. Has it lived up to its promise and potential?

Glickman: Well, I would have to tell you as a Congressman I voted for NAFTA and I would say that NAFTA, the promise was it was going to cure the world and every problem that people would face would be cured by NAFTA. And then things got bad and jobs began to move out overseas, in large part because of the normal issues of globalization, and NAFTA became the cause of every problem that anybody had in their own personal lives. And so the truth is somewhere in between. NAFTA did a lot of good for much of agriculture, a lot of jobs in the industrial sector got outsourced as well. And so it's unbalanced, it was a good thing for America and I think a good thing for Mexico, but I wouldn't say it was perfect either.

Lynch: And Secretary Johanns, is there a way to make this a 21st century trade agreement?

Johanns: Well, they're working on it right now. I think they'll be very hard to do because the give and take of that process is going to be extremely difficult because Mexico or Canada, they will have a long list of demands. That's just the reality of what you're dealing with. So I think it will be very difficult to renegotiate NAFTA, number one, Number two, if you're in the ag sector, and that certainly defines Iowa, there has been more benefit than loss, no question about it and you will know that if we pull out of NAFTA, you will realize quite immediately how important NAFTA was.

Lynch: Does agriculture need NAFTA more than say manufacturers or other industries?

Johanns: I think it's fair to say that agriculture has benefited more, so the answer to your question that would lead to a yes because ag sells a lot of product into that international marketplace between Canada and Mexico, but that's true about other trade agreements in other parts of the world. Generally agriculture has been the beneficiary of the trade agreements.

Yepsen: Governor, and I want to ask you this too, Secretary Glickman. How do you as political leaders sell this sort of thing to states that aren't so sure that NAFTA is a good deal? You've just said, it's important to agriculture. On the same token, you also understand there are people in the labor movement that say it has decimated the workforce. So, Governor, how do you sell it? How do you explain this to people that it's really a good deal?

Johanns: Yeah, you have a lot of history with NAFTA. Now, it's not like it's an agreement that just came into effect so you can look at what has happened and you can say here is where agriculture has benefited whether it's beef sales or pork or whatever it is. So you've got that example. But Dan's comment is also on target. There has been some negative effects to manufacturing. I think President Trump has tried to zero in on that and build a base of support amongst voters for redesigning NAFTA. The challenge you're going to face there, again, is that they also have a long list. No trade agreement is one-sided, it just doesn't work that way. So Mexico says, well if you want that then I want this and Canada and on and on and all of a sudden your trade agreement starts to unravel and I would say there's a lot of downside for a state like Iowa to withdraw from NAFTA.

Yepsen: Secretary Glickman, how do you explain it to people?

Glickman: Well, a little bit of bait and switch is what I would do, but I'm not President. But here's what I thought, is that clearly we've had a lot of jobs outsourced or modern technology has reduced the need for a lot of labor and that has been particularly true in heavy manufacturing and automobiles and other things. And so for the life of me I didn't understand why the President didn't begin his first initiative with rebuilding the nation's infrastructure because that would have been a multibillion effort, multitrillion dollar effort maybe, that would have put a lot of the same people to work who had lost their jobs in the manufacturing side of the picture. And it's always going to be hard to sell trade agreements, but it's a lot easier if you've got something to give them at the same time. They didn't do this. It looked to me like just a failure of strategy and therefore what average folks and a lot of these industrial states were left with was hopelessness, I lost my job and there's nowhere to go. And so they weren't given an alternative. That's my view.

Henderson: Governor Johanns, there has been a lot of discussion about what the appropriate production levels for renewable fuels should be in 2018. Beyond that we're bumping up against the end of the so-called Renewable Fuel Standard. Should it be continued past its targeted end?

Johanns: Yes.

Henderson: Why?

Johanns: Because renewable fuels are a piece of the puzzle. Now, I've never made the argument that biodiesel or ethanol is the end to our dependence on foreign oil or whatever, but it is a piece of the all of the above strategy in terms of working our way toward energy independence. Ethanol I just think has been a remarkable success story. It has been a success story here in Iowa. Iowa leads the nation in ethanol production. Nebraska is number two. It has been unbelievable in terms of job creation and investment.

Henderson: But how do you convince people in your own party who say it's tipping the scales in favor of an industry and we need to get rid of those kinds of loopholes?

Johanns: Here's what I always said to my party or to anyone who would ask that question, if you want to completely eliminate all of the incentives for business and everybody is put on a level playing field that's a discussion we can have. But if you're saying I want to pull this out, ethanol or biodiesel, and I want to take any incentive away from that, you're putting that industry at a disadvantage after sending a signal for years and years that we were going to provide that kind of economic support, if you will, to get this industry up and going. So, again, if the argument is let's just get rid of all incentives we can start the discussion there. If you're saying I want to pick this one industry and pick them out then I don't think that's fair.

Henderson: Another important industry in rural America, Secretary Glickman, has been the wind industry. There are those who are looking forward to the end of that production tax credit. What do you argue against that position among those who want it to end?

Glickman: Well, windy places, I'm for keeping the industry alive and I agree with what Mike Johanns just said, that is that you've got subsidies and incentives all over our economy and all over the tax code and the energy industry is replete with them. And it's just kind of the way we do things in this country, you provide incentives and not everything is absolutely purist in terms of the marketplace. Wind energy has got a lot of the nimby, not in my back yard to it because these are very large structures and there are a lot of people who think they're either environmentally problematic or they deal negatively with wildlife. But wind is endless and it's a useful part of a total strategy on energy and so we should keep it.

Lynch: There is an ongoing debate about immigration, right now it's focused on the Dreamers, but in a larger sense ag groups have tended to argue that immigration is necessary, especially harvesting fruits and vegetables, but we see it here in the Midwest dairy farms and the meatpacking industry. But it's not popular in rural America. Governor Johanns, can you explain this disconnect between what the commodity groups are arguing and what rural Americans see as a problem?

Johanns: I don't know that it's explainable because you look into rural America, I don't know how many meatpacking plants Dan and I would have walked through in our life, but it would be a long, long list. What do you see? It's Hispanic or it's another nationality, it's people who have come here and they're working there. The dairy industry, who is milking the cows? Again, it's a Hispanic worker. And they're very good at it. And who is picking the fruits and vegetables? I've had producers tell me, if I would have had a larger crop this year I could not have found the labor to get that crop out of the field. So, I really feel strongly that what we have to do is make the case to rural America that this is important, that this hurts us if we can't find a solution to the immigration issues in this country. It is key in some areas. You go to California where there's just a lot of hand labor when it comes to harvest, if somehow you could move everybody out of the country it would have a very observable effect and downside effect.

Lynch: Secretary Glickman, given the current politics in Washington, can we solve this?

Glickman: It's very difficult because the old apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Well, the tree in this case is the President and I will restrain myself from being overly partisan because we are actually non-partisan, agriculture is generally a non-partisan type of industry, it remains so. But I do think that most members of Congress in areas where you need immigrant labor are really pushing very hard to get a continuation and a modernization of the guest worker program and other ways to keep people here. Agriculture is very dramatically impacted by this, all parts of agriculture and so are a lot of small businesses around the country as well. It kind of is a pattern of people coming as immigrants, work their way up and become very successful citizens over a period of time. I frankly think that in some cases the President's attitude represents a nativist viewpoint, which has some appeal in this country, and especially in two areas, certain sectors of the Republican Party and certain areas in the Democratic Party where blue collar labor has been effected and impacted by lost jobs. But this country is stronger because of immigration, not weaker. And sometimes I think that argument is not made from a cosmic perspective.

Henderson: There is a growing divide between rural and urban areas of Iowa in a debate about water quality, Secretary Glickman. Farmers have really pushed back about the idea of federal intervention to improve water quality and deal with the so-called Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. How do you navigate that debate?

Glickman: Carefully. And of course the Governor here has the University of Nebraska, which is one of the major water research centers in the world now, that are in there. But the question is, can you produce crops and do them sustainably using less pesticides, less herbicides, less fungicides and improve soil quality and at the same time be productive in the area of agriculture? I think you can do that. I think it takes adherence to modern agriculture practices, which younger farmers are very much engaged in. I think it also takes a commitment to agriculture research to allow us to produce crops more efficiently with lower uses of pesticides and herbicides so they don't leach into the water supplies. Water is a gigantic challenge in the U.S. and the developing world as well. And I've read some about the conflicts between the urban areas and the rural areas, which is not limited to Iowa, it's in a lot of different places in the country. But I do think this is a solvable problem.

Johanns: Yeah, if I were to ask you to envision agriculture in the future I think 20 years from now or even 10 years from now we'll look back and we'll look at our agricultural practices today and we'll ask ourselves, why did we do that? You see the sprayers out in the field, you see the airplanes flying through the air and all of a sudden they're dropping whatever they're dropping onto the fields. I think we are working our way to a day where science is going to help us solve these problems, it's going to be better equipment, more targeted application, so instead of this broad application of pesticide or herbicide or whatever I think you're going to have the ability with better equipment, better sensing technology, etcetera to literally drop that right where it's needed and that will make a difference.

Glickman: One thing if I can. So this is an area where the general public often has views and thoughts that may not be necessarily consistent with production agriculture and you see some of those battles being fought. And more and more the general consumer, with the use of his or her smartphone and ability to communicate is much more empowered on these issues than you used to see. And that is why it's good to see the seed sector and chemical sectors and the food industry beginning to respond to this by saying the public wants safe land, safe soil, cleaner water, those kinds of things. Those are factors that we didn't see 20 and 30 and 40 years ago like we do today.

Yepsen: Governor, you mentioned 20 years down the road, so as long as you've got your crystal ball out I want to ask both of you to look ahead at the future of agriculture. What do you see coming to this industry? I saw a short little story in the Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago about how an engineer in Indiana planted 500 acres of corn without ever getting on the tractor, it was all done with robotics. What do you see, Governor, as the future out here?

Johanns: Well, if you're looking at U.S. agriculture it's a different phenomenon than what you see in the rest of the world. But what I see is you'll have better science, better technology, better equipment, better everything because that has been the pace of agriculture. I grew up on a dairy farm and I can tell you we planted corn with a four-row planter and John Deere B and dad would sight down the row. You don't do that anymore, it's GPS. And so when you look at U.S. agriculture I do envision a day where we have the ability to say we're just using our resources much more wisely.

Henderson: But is the missing link here broadband and the use of GPS in every area of the countryside?

Johanns: Well, I just think you'll see that technology get less expensive and it would be expensive now to do what I'm saying and actually we don't have the capacity to do all of what I'm saying today, but that day will come. Who would have ever guessed you would have GPS on most new tractors now?

Yepsen: Secretary Glickman, look in your crystal ball. What do you see?

Glickman: Well, first of all, as long as we keep our research budgets up, and Secretary Vilsack appointed me to this Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, which is Congress appropriated money to do cutting edge research on a lot of these issues. One of the issues we're looking at is photosynthesis. We still grow crops using the sun's technology that hasn't really changed in about 350 years. So there are a lot of things that are potentially available on the research side as long as public and private research dollars are adequately funded. And the second thing I mentioned a little bit before is the power of consumer. That's a big change in agriculture in this country. And so people do want to know what's in their food, how it's produced, where it's produced, whether it's safe, who grew it and all those kinds of things. And that power of consumer is going to impact a lot more players in agriculture. Farmers and ranchers have to be a big part of it. But the medical profession may be more a part of it because, after all, what you eat has a lot to do with how long you're going to live. And so I think we're going to see a much more close connection between health, nutrition and agriculture than we might have a long time ago.

Yepsen: James, just a few minutes left.

Lynch: Speaking of health, the opioid crisis has hit rural America particularly hard. Secretary Glickman, you talked earlier about a hopelessness. I wonder, is that a cause of the opioid crisis in rural America? And if it is, how do you attack that root cause?

Glickman: Well, actually the Governor here talked a little bit about this in the earlier forum. Hopelessness, loneliness, poverty, social conditions, maybe modern means of communication where people are bombarded, they're looking at a smartphone eight hours a day, all these things kind of mesh together on this problem, which has just geometrically increased. And I think the one thing we have learned, I know Governor Vilsack kind of led the effort during the previous administration on this thing, is that this is a holistic problem. This is a problem that not only just affects addiction but the addiction is caused by poverty, hopelessness, loneliness, anxiety and a variety of other things and so you need all those players in the action.

Yepsen: Just a couple of minutes.

Henderson: Governor Johanns, you were here for the World Food Prize events and you discussed feeding the world. How in the world do you feed the world as the world's population continues to grow?

Johanns: Yeah, it's an excellent question and it's a question that really points out that we don't have a choice. The world population is growing and it's growing in a part of the world that is very, very underdeveloped. So you take what I was talking about earlier, American agriculture is going to continue to advance and grow. But what you also see in other parts of the world, Africa would be a good example, but other parts, they are employing practices that maybe we did in the '50s and '60s, but they increased production. We're doing a reasonable job of production increase on a worldwide basis. One of the challenges we face is not enough good infrastructure. How do you get that product into the cities where you could feed more people? How do you refrigerate in a part of the world where refrigeration is almost nonexistent? And those are the challenges we have to meet. Now, those are technology challenges. There aren't really barriers to that as such, but they are real and we have to figure out how to do that to feed the world.

Henderson: Secretary Glickman, how do you address the debate between organic versus GMO?

Glickman: I'll answer the question the same way, carefully. In fact, we had a protest at our world food hunger thing from some anti-GMO protestors, which I've faced before. One is that the agriculture industry has to do a much better job of explaining the benefits of new genetic technologies in genetic engineering. And to date, by and large, I think they have been not very good at doing that. What are the benefits from it? How does it impact the sustainability of the soil, the water, the air? How does it affect your health, for example? How does it affect productivity? So the technologies are here, they're going to continue to develop at a rapid pace, but part of this is telling the story better and that has been a real issue.

Lynch: We like to say it's not an official Iowa Press without some discussion of politics. So let's jump to this.

Yepsen: We've got about 30 seconds left.

Lynch: Yeah, we've got about 30 seconds so very quickly. It's early days in the Trump administration, but Secretary Glickman, how would you assess the Trump administration, in particular towards agriculture?

Glickman: Well, I think Sonny Perdue is a good choice for Secretary. I think he's doing a good job. I think he has had, so far I can see good impact on the President. I wouldn't give the President as good of grades as I'd give Sonny Perdue.

Yepsen: Governor?

Johanns: Sonny Perdue is the right choice. Your Secretary of Agriculture is going to Washington, ours in Nebraska, two outstanding choices to be in the USDA. I'm paying a lot of attention to trade agreements these days because I believe they're important to agriculture. The success of Donald Trump in rural America I think will depend a lot on how he handles those trade agreements and that story is yet to be told.

Yepsen: Gentlemen, I hate to end this discussion. Thank you very much for being with us. Thank you for coming to Iowa. You were at the World Food Prize Hunger Summit and we appreciate you doing that and being with us here this afternoon. So thank you.

Glickman: Great.

Johanns: Thank you.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining our latest edition of Iowa Press. We'll be back next week with another program. Catch us Friday night at 7:30 and Sunday at Noon on our main IPTV channel with a rebroadcast on our .3 World channel Saturday morning at 8:30. For all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.