How I Spent My Summer Vacation Tracking Presidential Candidates On Ag Issues

SARA WYANT

WASHINGTON, D.C.
   Many of you know that – when Congress is out on its August recess – I usually take two weeks off from publishing my Agri-Pulse e-newsletter. That’s normally the time I devote to cleaning off the desk, planning ahead and spending more time with one of my favorite summer activities: swimming.
   But it’s 2015 and the summer of presidential “wannabees.” A whopping seventeen candidates are swarming around the Iowa State Fairgrounds, looking for a bump up in the national polls and some way to sway Iowa voters, who will be the first in the nation to caucus. How could I stay away?
   As someone who grew up in Iowa, I have tremendous respect and appreciation for the process that most voters go through as they size up the candidates. They expect to meet them at the fair, in town halls or pizza places and ask tough questions. They want to size them up by how they look (real or just pretend country folks) and how they sound on a number of issues. And a more recent phenomenon: they want to take “selfies” with the candidates.
   But as a reporter who focuses on agriculture and rural policy, the task can be more difficult. Even though these fine men and women are in the middle of one of the country’s biggest agricultural states, few candidates want to talk about agriculture or even food policy – unless, of course, it’s a question about a fried Snickers bar or a pork chop on a stick.
   My colleague Phil Brasher started off our Iowa State Fair coverage of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald Trump. At times, he reported, you could hardly move around the fairgrounds when the candidates were walking by or in the case of Trump, flying circles around the fair in his glitzy helicopter. Still, Brasher managed to stick with the candidates and get a couple of farm policy questions asked and answered. 
   By the time I showed up on Sunday, the temperatures had cooled slightly below 90 degrees, but the press pool was still hot on the trails of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is enjoying a post-debate bump in the polls. On Monday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Businesswoman Carly Fiorina, and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham all shared the Des Moines Register’s soapbox stage at different times.
   After the official comments, the press scrum began. This is aptly named after a Rugby scrum, with dozens pulling and pushing at the same time in an effort to get close to the candidate, while several Highway Patrolmen try to clear a path forward. 
   With Walker, there were at least 50 reporters and bloggers surrounding the candidate, trying to suck up every comment or every misspoken word with big booming microphones, recorders and video cameras. As the governor emerged from his soapbox speech, a Fox News reporter was doing a live interview while walking backwards. Time magazine’s Mark Halperin was asking questions on his right flank. A reporter who I did not recognize walked behind me and kept stepping on my heels.
   Obviously, this is an exercise some reporters do on a daily basis. Yet, this is not an exercise for the faint of heart or the claustrophobic.
   I found myself trying to anticipate the candidate’s next direction and movement so I didn’t have to keep getting squashed in the scrum as it plodded down one of the main streets of the fair. Complicating the journey for Gov. Scott Walker was that, in addition to the media, he had a handful of hecklers from Wisconsin who wanted to keep complaining about his home state accomplishments.
   And then, out of the blue, the Governor stopped to visit with a little boy who wanted an autograph. The scrum shifted and I ended up on his left hand side, armed with questions that farmers might want to know.
   Asked about whether or not he would also phase out other types of farm program subsidies, Walker offered no specifics, but emphasized that, “I think crop insurance is incredibly important.  It is something I know from my years here and even in Wisconsin, so I would keep intact a strong crop insurance program.”
   When it comes to dealing with environmental issues like runoff and water quality, Walker said he would push more power back to the states rather than federal agencies like the EPA. “A lot of issues have been incredibly frustrating for farmers, they love…well they are more comfortable with ….their local and state officials…the EPA has been a big problem.”
   I connected with Fiorina when she was speaking to Iowa Farm Bureau leaders working in their state fair exhibit that day. I asked about water issues and she said she assumed that farmers would manage their water wisely because it is their livelihood. 
   “Why would you expect a government bureaucrat to manage your water better than you?” she asked. 
   Asked about what types of farm subsidies or payments she would continue to support, she said, “One of the things we have to do before we do anything else is to stop crushing the farmers in this country, which we are.... When the EPA is going to control somewhere between 85 and 95 percent of the water in this state by the end of this month, that crushes farmers.…
   “Honestly, there is so much work to do to undo the harm that’s being done and we have to get around  doing that immediately.  
   “When I talk about phasing things out, I’m talking about phasing out overtime … when we have markets that are in good shape. It’s not time to do it now. It will be time at some point to phase them all out because governments shouldn’t be in the job of setting markets or market prices. 
   “But for now, the most important thing we can do for farmers is to stop harming them.”
   Of the three GOP candidates criss-crossing the Iowa State Fair that day, Sen. Graham exhibited the strongest knowledge of farm and energy policy. He embraced an “all of the above” energy policy, including strong support for the Renewable Fuel Standard. 
   Asked about efforts to split the “food” and “farm” portions of the 2014 farm bill and the types of coalitions needed to support future farm bills, Graham observed: “Farm politics is the most unusual politics I’ve ever seen. It’s the south versus the east and the middle of America.
   “The reason we couldn’t do more and split it (the farm bill) in two is because you need Democrats to vote for the farm bill. Some Republicans cannot bring themselves to vote for the farm bill because it’s not ideologically pure.”
   Graham acknowledged that few politicians understand the risks that farmers take on an everyday basis.
   “Everybody likes to complain about the farmer until they go to eat,” he added.
   As you can see, there’s still more work to do when it comes to tracking candidates on farm and rural policy issues. But my summer vacation offered a pretty good start. ∆
   SARA WYANT: Editor of Agri-Pulse, a weekly e-newsletter covering farm and rural policy. To contact her, go to: http://www.agri-pulse.com/
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