Candidates talk ag policy at Greene County round table

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Joining in the Greene County Democrats’ ag-policy round table were, from left, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture candidate Tim Gannon, Congressman John Delaney of Maryland, Iowa House district 47 candidate David Weaver, moderator Chuck Offenburger, Landus Cooperative Communications Director Alicia Heun, local producer Patti Naylor and small-scale farmer and owner of Wind Utility Consulting Tom Wind. Not pictured is Iowa fourth Congressional district candidate J. D. Scholten.

The 2020 presidential campaign started Aug. 9 in Greene County with a trio of mid-term candidates sharing equal billing.

Democrat Congressman John Delaney of Maryland, who declared his candidacy for president a year ago, was listed at the top of the program, but his campaign staff coordinated with the staffs of J. D. Scholten, candidate for Congress from Iowa’s fourth Congressional district, Tim Gannon, candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, and David Weaver, candidate for the Iowa House for district 47.

All the candidates spoke at a round table on agricultural issues at the Milwaukee Road depot. Sharing local perspectives were Alicia Heun, director of communications for the Landus Cooperative, and small-scale, local producers Patti Naylor and Tom Wind. Moderator was veteran Iowa journalist Chuck Offenburger.

About 55 persons attended. The event was coordinated by Greene County Democrat central committee chair Chris Henning. Henning also spoke as a farmer.

Delaney grew up in a blue-collar town in northern New Jersey, where his father was a union electrician. He characterizes has family as “working people.” His wife grew up in a farming town in Idaho, and has strong roots in agriculture, he said.

After 20 years as an entrepreneur, he ran for Congress in 2012. The district he represents covers nearly the entire western portion of Maryland, including the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C.

He said he has worked twice on the federal Farm Bill.

“I think it’s a tragedy that it became a partisan bill in the last Congress,” Delaney said. “I think the Farm Bill has been one of the great efforts of bipartisanship in this country. It’s brought together rural America, with its concerns for the agricultural community, with urban America, which originally had concerns making sure supplemental programs, the food stamp program.”

He said the Farm Bill should have terms longer than five years in order to provide more certainty.

Delaney said he has worked to promote environmental stewardship, saying he has worked toward stewardship of the planet while also keeping American agriculture competitive. He said he’s one of the few Democrats who supported President Obama’s 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership “because I thought it was the right thing for us economically as a country, and it was definitely the right thing for us geopolitically.”

About President Trump’s tariffs, he said, “I think what’s going on now with trade is terrible. I think we have legitimate issues with China, but they’re actually around intellectual property. They’re not around trade deficits. I think we need a more sensible trade policy in this country, and we need to support that with a bipartisan, strong, long-term Farm Bill. Those things together are an important step to make sure we have a strong agricultural economy and we can continue to support our farmers.”

Tim Gannon grew up on a Century Farm in Jasper County. His father had a John Deere dealership during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. He says he saw not only farmers, but also farm towns, suffer.

Gannon worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., while Tom Vilsack was Secretary of Agriculture and later returned to Iowa to raise his family.
Gannon said he disagrees with the new federal biofuels policy that has pushed down the price of corn and beans.

He is also unhappy with new tariffs, noting that the USDA’s farm forecast for this year, made public in February, projects farm income to decrease for the fifth consecutive year. Prices have fallen for almost all agricultural sectors since the Trump administration began talking about tariffs in April.

Gannon called Trump’s trade policy “incoherent and poorly thought out.”

He said more money should be spent on research at Iowa State University, which would let future generations of Iowans who want to make a living in agriculture know they can.

“That’s not just by scratching out a very small margin and more and more bushels of corn and beans,” Gannon said. “We’ve got to diversify what we can grow so we’re not as subject to price interruptions like we’ve seen this year.”

Gannon said he would like to see more research into new uses of what is grown in Iowa to increase profitability for farmers, and he would like to increase opportunities in rural Iowa.

J. D. Scholten is the first generation of his family to be raised in town, part of a long line of farmers and teachers. His family’s farm is near Lake Mills and is rented to a family friend.
Scholten said that along with falling prices, a change in relations between farmers and bankers has made it more difficult to get the credit many of them rely on. With so many small banks now owned by larger banks, credit applications “get passed up the ladder, and you don’t hear back for a year or so,” he said.

Delaney also mentioned farm credit later during the round-table program, saying that easing federal regulations on rural banks would make it easier for banks to grant credit based on the banker’s knowledge of and relationship with a farmer.

David Weaver of Rippey cited the high cost of health insurance as a challenge for farmers, noting that in seven years the cost of his family’s insurance has increased from $3,000 annually to $20,000, while farm income has decreased.

He said it is time to release the entrepreneurial spirit of farmers.

“Farmers are nothing if they aren’t entrepreneurial and independent,” Weaver said.

Weaver said he belongs to three ag-related organizations. He belongs to Farm Bureau for its health insurance, but he said he disagrees with legislation Farm Bureau lobbied for a year ago that makes its insurance unregulated by the state.

“Farm Bureau does some things,” he said, “but I’m concerned about where it’s going.”

He also belongs to the Iowa Soybean Association, which he called “one of the great leaders as far as water quality in the state of Iowa.”

His third membership is in Practical Farmers of Iowa. He appreciates PFI’s emphasis on growing food for people’s tables, he said.

Alicia Heun shared information about current markets. Landus Cooperative is the largest farmer-owned cooperative in Iowa and the sixth largest grain company in North America based on storage. About 7,000 farmers across Iowa are members, and about 40 locations are in the Fourth Congressional district.

Landus Cooperative employs 600 persons in 26 counties. It is the largest property tax payer in Greene County, Heun said.

The coop handles about 170 million bushels of grain a year, she said, and of that amount, 22 million bushels go to Mexico. A train loaded with grain leaves Landus Cooperative for Mexico every week. Each train hauls the equivalent of 450 semi-tractor trailers.

Between 30 percent and 60 percent of Landus’ soybeans are processed at the SoyPlus plant in Ralston. From there it is shipped to Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Australia and other nations. Another 10 percent of the soybeans are shipped to the Gulf of Mexico and sent to destinations around the globe. Heun said she is certain some of them end up in China.

About 40 percent of the corn grown by coop members is used to make ethanol.

“Renewable fuels are very important to us,” Heun said. She also noted the importance of broadband internet in rural areas.

Greene County farmer Patti Naylor spoke about parity and justice in farming. She said she wished more farmers were in the audience.

“The more voices of farmers that we hear,” Naylor said, “the more unified our farmers are and the more we can accomplish. Agriculture is so very important to the world, to all of our citizens.”

According to Naylor, “We are in a farm crisis that needs both social recognition and political change to be truly addressed.” The price farmers are paid for what they produce is at the root of the problem, she said, and an emphasis on increasing yield, with hopes of making more money, leaves farmers short.

Low farm incomes increase stress and leave farmers and communities vulnerable to exploitation by the livestock industry and by the wind energy industry, Naylor said.

Fewer families are living in rural areas, leading to “a societal disconnection to farming, to farm animals, to the land, to nature and to our food. This is an agrarian crisis, an environmental crisis and a crisis of the human spirit,” she said.

She proposed a parity system of price floors, grain reserves, and supply management as a solution.

Tom Wind spoke after Naylor and rather than seeing agriculture in crisis, he said he is optimistic about the future of agriculture.

Wind spent his career in the electric utility industry and has recently begun farming again on the family farm. He said he is concerned about water quality but he drew a parallel between how the electric industry responded to pressure from environmentalists and how agriculture can respond to water quality issues.

He said decades ago, the utility industry claimed it could not correct an acid rain problem because it would be too expensive, and customers would have to pay higher rates. The same thing happened when utilities learned about the toxicity of the PCBs they put on transformers as a fire retardant.

“Both of those problems were solved because the government said we had to,” Wind said. “The government said we had to work with the stakeholders and come up with a plan, submit it to us and then do it.”

The method of reducing acid rain ended up costing only 5 percent of what had first been estimated and although it took a long time to clean up PCBs, it was done.

Wind said that modern agriculture is in the same position now that the utility industry was in then.

“Every time we have a major pollution problem, we say ‘It’s going to be too expensive. . . . It’s going to cost billions of dollars to solve it.’”

He said it was the federal mandate and American ingenuity that led the utility industry to find solutions at a fraction of the cost, and he thinks American agriculture will solve the water-pollution problem the same way.

“I’m so optimistic about the agricultural industry and our ability to fix things,” Wind said. “American ingenuity – it’s worked so many times in the past. I think it takes political leadership to say, ‘We have to do this. You guys figure it out, but you have to do this,’ and then let American ingenuity work.”

He looks forward to being able to go to any creek in the county 10 years from now and drink from it without worry about toxic algae blooms.

“I think in 10 years we can make a big dent in it,” he said.

Chris Henning spoke about the use of cover crops to reduce soil erosion and improve water quality. She also talked about farm-succession planning and about the impact capital gains on families has on farmland handed down to younger generations who may or may not want to farm.

During the discussion portion, Congressman Delaney said the building blocks of entrepreneurism need to be available in rural communities, including access to credit. Along with that, it’s important to build an economy that will attract new employees, he said.

“We’ve left large portions of our country behind in the last decades,” Delaney said. “Last year in America, 80 percent of the venture capital went to 50 counties in the country. That’s out of 3,000 counties. Yet 70 percent of our kids live in counties where there’s no evidence of upward economic mobility. We’ve allowed huge parts of our country to be hollowed out.”

Delaney ended on a cautiously hopeful note.

“Like Tom, I’m an optimist,” he said. “I think if we turn the innovation machine in the United States of America on any problem, they will find solutions. But we have to create an environment where the innovators have an incentive to take the risk. That’s why I like universal health care, so that no matter where you go, you can take a risk and still have health care.”

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