The opportunity to hear what candidates have to say about agriculture is generally limited to a small portion of the election cycle. As the Iowa Caucuses approach candidates are devoting more time to talking about farm policy.
Special interest groups have been holding debates and forums at a record pace. Recently, the Iowa Farmers Union took their turn and invited presidential candidates to their Food and Family Farm Presidential Summit. Though the entire field was invited only Democratic candidates, already in town for a nearby political event, took advantage of another moment in the spotlight. Nancy Crowfoot explains.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois: "Tell ConAgra it's not the Department of Agribusiness. It's the Department of Agriculture."
It is part of the job for politicians to identify as much as possible with their audience.
Fmr. Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carolina "You're looking at the democrat who grew up in rural America."
So when speaking to a crowd of farmers...
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York: "People are surprised to learn New York is actually both rural and urban."
... it is no surprise they all claim to know the plight of rural America.
Five of the democratic candidates for president appeared at The Iowa Farmers Union Food and Family Farm Summit in the state's capitol city of Des Moines. Prior to the campaign speeches, the organization that advocates for preserving small family farms, laid out for the candidates -- and the audience-- its concerns about the state of rural America.
Chris Petersen, President, Iowa Farmers Union, "Over the years I've been disappointed over what's been going on in rural America: less farmers, population declines, unchecked pollution, unchecked subsidies."
Among the solutions the Farmers Union wants candidates to support include: a $250,000 cap on subsidies under consideration by the Senate, a ban on packer ownership of livestock, local control over decisions regarding livestock feeding operations and Country of Original Labeling (also called COOL).
And most of the candidates agreed on each item.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois: "Here's what I'll do as president. I'll immediately implement Country Of Origin Labeling because Americans should know where there food comes from."
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York: "We need to better target our commodity payment programs so that family farms, not corporate farms, are the key beneficiaries. That's why I favor closing loopholes that disproportionately benefit wealthy farmers."
Fmr. John Edwards, D-North Carolina: "And you're looking at a president of United States who will do everything in my power to support a packer ban; to make sure that we don't have these vertically integrated operations that are taking away the ability of family farmers to be able to farm, to be able to raise livestock."
These candidates are "preaching to the choir" at this event of family-sized farmers who aren't involved in large scale production. But those who run larger Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, referred to as CAFOs, say they are an efficient way to raise livestock and be able to compete in the world marketplace.
But talk about being able to compete in the world market is something that is missing from both parties in the presidential race -- says the only republican elected official speaking to the Farmers Union event.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa: "Trade is not on the top of the agenda as much as it used to be because there's a trend toward protectionism and that trend toward protectionism maybe is good for some sections of our economy but its sure not good for agriculture because we over-produce so much and we have so much to export we have to have the opening up of markets if we're going to have prosperity for American agriculture."
Senator Grassley, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, says he believes countries that trade together promote international understanding and may be less likely to engage in war. But on this day, the few who did speak about international trade, focused on the economic consequences of policies negotiated.
For example, Chris Dodd said he would ensure prices of American farm goods are not undercut.
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut: "I will never sign. I will never, ever sign, as your president, a trading agreement that doesn't have labor standards, environmental standards and health standards, in it. That'll never have my signature on it. Not once. Gotta be level playing field."
Sen. Joe Biden said, as president he will help farmers "connect the dots" between agriculture policy, and foreign and economic policies.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware: "When you sit down and plan your planting season for next spring, it shouldn't require a PhD in international economic policy and international monetary policy to be able to figure out your bottom line."
To help farmers and rural communities survive in such a complex global economy, Biden --- (as did others who spoke at the Farm Summit) -- promised to connect all of rural America to high-speed, broadband Internet.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware: "You should be able to dial up and make a direct deal with someone in China. You should be able to dial up and make a direct deal with someone in Paraguay. you should be able to dial up and make a direct deal. the only way for you to have any chance in my view as time goes on is to deal with the concentrated buyers of your product will own you before its over, is to let you escape through the use of new technology."
In addition to technology, candidates want to revitalize rural communities with financial incentives.
For example, Hillary Clinton's proposed tax credits for small businesses that stay in rural counties.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York: "and new streams of capital, strategic advice and technical training for rural entrepreneurs and small businesses."
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut: "Investing $50 billion annually in renewable energy. Iowa could be to renewable energy what Texas has become to oil."
Chris Dodd proposed a renewable energy trust fund to help farmers expand production of alternative fuels and create a more diverse rural and farm economy.
And Barack Obama plans to hold a bipartisan rural summit in Iowa.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois: " We'll listen to you. We'll come together in a bipartisan way. And we'll take action on a rural agenda in my first hundred days in office."
Obama may have plans for his first 100 days as president, but he -- and all the candidates -- have "many rivers to cross" before claiming the White House as their future home. The first are the Iowa caucuses on January 3.
For Market to Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.