Playing Politics With The American Farmer
Wednesday, October 17th, 2012
Heading into an election under a weak economy, with a stubborn nationwide drought and without a Farm Bill to allow growers and producers to plan, national leaders don’t have a lot to brag about to farmers.
Still, both main parties are reaching out to rural Americans and farmers, though they aren’t saying much about the big issues that concern them.
From the tone of USDA official announcements, it’s obvious that the Obama administration is reaching out to rural Americans and wanting to connect the president with good ag news.
In August 2007, a term-limited President Bush was mentioned six times in USDA news releases.
This year during the same month, President Obama was mentioned 73 times. The month before, his name appeared 79 times.
The president was lauded when the USDA redesigned www.recreation.gov (a website that helps outdoorsy people find places to play on federal land) and when the agency pushed to allow herds to graze on cover crops during drought.
But when the Rural Business Enterprise Grant gave out 16 grants, most of them around $100,000 for economic development, the USDA was overflowing in its praise of the administration:
“President Obama's plan for rural America has brought about historic investment and resulted in stronger rural communities. Under the President's leadership, these investments in housing, community facilities, businesses and infrastructure have empowered rural America to continue leading the way – strengthening America's economy, small towns and rural communities.”
The USDA – whether many people notice it – is led by a political appointee. Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack owes his job to Obama and will only keep it if the president wins re-election.
“This is still a political department. Vilsack is appointed,” said Jolene Brown, a public speaker and family business consultant who specializes in agriculture. “For him, if you want to stay in office, your party has to stay in office.”
Even when the presidential candidates speak about a much weightier issue like the Farm Bill, it’s only to point out what the other candidate hasn’t done.
Mitt Romney, speaking to 500 farmers in Iowa the first week of October, blasted the president for failing to push through a Farm Bill, according to Fox News, even though House Republicans were the ones who refused to put the legislation on the floor for a vote. “What you are hearing are things that will help one person prove he is more dedicated than the other candidate,” Brown said.
To get some facts about the two presidential candidates’ actual platforms, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and the Farm Foundation sponsored a debate of sorts last month, inviting surrogates from the two campaigns to speak at the ag secretaries’ annual convention in Iowa.
“Agriculture is important in Iowa … It affects everyone in this country,” said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, who also serves as chairman of the national group. “Agriculture is also important politically, at least it’s very important in this cycle.” In the nearly 90 minutes of debate, former Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and Lt. Gov. Patty Judge represented Barack Obama and former U.S. senator, Nebraska governor and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns presented the platform of Mitt Romney.
“Pres. Obama is fighting for a bipartisan Farm Bill that recognizes the diversity of our agriculture economy and is easier for farmers to navigate,” Judge said. “But while President Obama is making a rural economy built to last, Mitt Romney has endorsed the Republican Congressional budget plan that would undercut rural communities and
undermine our nation’s economy.”
Judge blamed Congressional Republicans for blocking the passage of the Farm Bill that gained bi-partisan support this summer and accused Romney of “sitting by” while they did.
Pres. Obama delivered a soaring speech in Iowa four years ago, Johanns said, but in the years that followed, listeners learned it was just rhetoric.
“The reality of the Farm Bill is this: Everybody knew there was going to have to be sacrifice. No doubt about it,” Johanns said. The bill bogged down in the House over nutrition programs, which have grown “exponentially,” he said.
Spending on nutrition grew from 60 percent to 80 percent of the budget in just five years.
“As elected officials, House members and Senate members are asking themselves, what’s going on here? How can we address this?” he said. Organizers of the debate admitted that they didn’t expect to change any minds in the audience, but only wanted to get issues before voters to discuss.
People across the country can watch the debate at NetNebraska,
The agriculture sector contains some dedicated voters – there just aren’t a lot of them.
“Agriculture is a minority vote, a minority percentage. That’s why you aren’t hearing much about agriculture in the presidential election,” said Brown. “When the Farm Bill is mentioned, it is only mentioned in the context of what one is doing and the other isn’t.”
Brown, who lives in Iowa, is concerned about the lack of agriculture debate mostly because the proposals that politicians put in their platforms generally turn into the action items they pursue in the first 100 days in office.
“Agriculture is one of the few industries in this country that consistently exports products. Agriculture is a huge contributor to bringing income to America,” she said.
Brown – who calls herself an “agvocate” – thinks that’s why ag proponents need to reframe the debate a little bit and discuss agriculture as a solution for jobs, energy, independence, even political strife.
“Iowa is one of the swing states. Every vote counts here,” she said. Even when the news is good, voters have become so disillusioned, they may not be swayed.
The Commerce Department announced in late September, for example, that it was re-considering a 1996 agreement that essentially allowed Mexican tomato growers to undercut farmers in Florida.
After 16 years of struggle, Florida growers have reason to be happy, but the decision came late.
“The delay and difficulty may negate any positive momentum” that the president would get from the announcement, said Adam Basford, director of state legislative affairs for Florida Farm Bureau.
“You would think that it would be the perfect storm – with a Sept. 30 deadline to renew (the Farm Bill), an election coming up and the opportunity to make changes – you would think that would add up to the impetus to act. That’s why this Congress is so dysfunctional.”
A few reasons have kept farmers from kicking and screaming too much about the fact that the Farm Bill is tied up and presidential candidates haven’t talked in great specifics about agriculture.
Most crops are enjoying good commodity prices now.
“I just want a level playing field and a good crop,” said Ray Morris, a southwest Georgia farmer who’s voted both parties over the years. But he senses a lot of discontent in rural America.
“The goose that’s laying the golden egg is the working man who goes out and earns money for his family,” Morris said. “And he’s madder than he’s ever been.”