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Published August 22, 2011, 05:02 AM

Obama heads to rural America

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s three-day Midwestern bus tour the week of Aug. 15 gave him an opportunity to invite farm and rural leaders who are likely to help him get re-elected to a White House-sponsored event. It also has given him a chance to hear directly about those issues that rural Americans say the administration has not handled very well and could pose problems in convincing them to vote for him in 2012.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s three-day Midwestern bus tour the week of Aug. 15 gave him an opportunity to invite farm and rural leaders who are likely to help him get re-elected to a White House-sponsored event. It also has given him a chance to hear directly about those issues that rural Americans say the administration has not handled very well and could pose problems in convincing them to vote for him in 2012.

According to press pool reports written by local and national journalists and distributed by the White House, the participants in the White House Rural Economic Forum at a community college in Peosta, Iowa, on Aug. 16 included:

- National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson.

- Joel Greeno, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who is a member of the executive committee of the National Family Farm Coalition.

- Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska.

- John Zippert, assistant secretary for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a Georgia-based group that works with black farmers.

- David Gipp of the United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota.

- Tom Buis of Growth Energy, the ethanol group, and a former president of the National Farmers Union, also was present, a Growth Energy official said.

All these groups represent smaller farmers, minority farmers and other rural Americans who are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican. The White House said that 125 rural leaders had been invited to the forum and that 26 states were represented. A group of FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America) students also was invited to attend.

Obama did better in rural America in 2008 than any Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton. That was because Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Republican candidate, had opposed both the farm bill and ethanol and because the Obama campaign focused more on rural America than most Democratic candidates have.

In 2010, many conservative Democrats from rural America, known as Blue Dogs, lost their elections as rural Americans voted for Tea Party Republicans. While many of these voters were upset with the health care reform act and other legislation that the Democrats passed, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., noted that when times are good, rural Americans switch their attention from the programs that Democrats establish to protect farmers to the regulations they dislike, and they often vote Republican. The question for Obama in 2012 is whether he can recapture the rural votes that he got in 2008.

The Aug. 16 forum consisted of opening and closing events at which Obama delivered remarks and five breakout sessions. Obama attended two of those sessions: “Growing Rural Small Business” with SBA Administrator Karen Mills and “Promoting Agricultural Innovation and Renewable Energy Jobs in Rural Communities” with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The other sessions:

n “Strengthening the Middle Class in Rural America” led by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Sean Donovan and Domestic Policy Council head Melody Barnes

n “Creating Jobs through Conservation, Outdoor Recreation and Tourism” led by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Council on Environmental Quality Chairman Nancy Sutley

n “Building Economic Opportunity for Rural Businesses through Infrastructure Investments” led by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Obama’s remarks in all the sessions focused on policies the administration also has promoted, particularly innovation in biofuels and bringing high-speed Internet service to rural America. Administration officials announced programs to increase Small Business Administration lending in rural America and to spend $510 million on the development of advanced biofuels for marine and aviation use.

Obama stressed the importance of innovation in biofuels and his commitment to a strong safety for farmers, an issue on which he may be able to differentiate himself from some more free-market-oriented Republicans.

“If we can harness homegrown fuels, whether it’s biofuels, wind, solar, geothermal, then I think it can generate hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country,” he said, as well as reduce dependency on foreign oil and diversifying farmers’ sources of income.

“When you look at farm economies, prices now are good, but given the volatility of world markets, we need to figure out how we can use energy and conservation to enhance the core business of feeding people,” he added.

Capping subsidies

Reacting to a statement in one session that farm subsidies should be capped, Obama repeated his position favoring the cap.

“I will tell you there was a candidate in 2008 — Barack Obama — who laid out a need for this cap,” Obama said. He added that Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, “may have pushed,” but that the agriculture committees would not agree to a proposal as strict as Grassley’s.

“We continue to believe we need caps in place, it makes no sense,” Obama said, telling the group it should press to get the measure passed.

“You are preaching to the choir,” he concluded.

Farm subsidy caps are not popular with the large farmers who produce most of the nation’s food, but they are popular with small farmers who think that the subsidies help the big farmers expand and compete unfairly for land.

Telling their tales

According to the pool reports, Obama said he was there to listen as well as to speak. The breakout sessions offered farm and rural leaders a chance to tell the president directly what they have previously told Congress and other administration officials.

The participants also repeatedly said they think regulation should be reduced.

In addition, the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and National Pork Producers Council bought a full-page advertisement in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, criticizing the administration’s proposed rule change regarding the packers and stockyards act. Other farm and livestock groups have praised the rule, however, and members of the groups that took out the ad are unlikely to vote for Obama.

A close reading of the pool reports showed that the sessions provided an opportunity for administration officials and participants to raise all the issues that the administration has promoted during the past 2½ years.

In one breakout session, Johnson, the Farmers Union president, asked for “policy certainty” in renewable energy investment.

“There has to be a five- or 10-year horizon so industry knows what to expect,” he said.

“We need to have certainty about the RFS,” added Victoria Carver, of the Iowa Soybean Association, referring to the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires that a certain level of renewables be blended into the nation’s fuel supply.

Greeno, who represented the National Family Farm Coalition, said “rural America is the key to fixing the economy,” but that farmers are not earning enough.

“Farmers don’t have money to reinvest in anything,” he said.

Over-regulated?

But several participants complained about too much regulation from the Environment Protection Agency and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Vilsack noted that he had encouraged EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who was not part of the bus tour, to see more of rural America, which she has done. Vilsack suggested “maybe people who are doing regulating need to do a better job of communicating.” Traveling to rural communities “is an eye-opening experience,” he said. “There just isn’t enough of that.”

Gary Kregel, president of the Dairy Foundation, said entrepreneurs are fearful of additional regulations, as well as those already in the pipeline, such as with the Dodd-Frank financial services regulation. He said the EPA needs to be reined in.

“Regulation will take innovation right off the table,” Kregel said. “You’ve got to let the free market work.” He suggested a freeze on new regulations for two to four years.

Zippert of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives suggested a program in which the federal government would match locally raised funds for businesses employing 50 to 100 people.

“We could organize 100 people in every one of these communities,” he said, adding that unemployment and underemployment in the counties he works in is at 30 percent.

Obama walked in while Zippert was talking about regulations and the Gulf Coast, and shifted the conversation to innovation in the energy sector and how it could create a lot of jobs, according to the pool report.

Participants in the small business session told Obama that businesses with less than $1 million in revenue are particularly in need of capital and loans. One participant suggested that the ceiling on commercial lending that applies to credit unions should be lifted.

“Help us get started, and then let the venture capital people take over,” said Mike Sexton, manager of software development for Manure Works, one of the people who breakfasted with the president.

The No Child Left Behind law is “pulling us in the ditch,” said Dale Gruis of Future Farmers of America. Obama said the Education Department will allow more waivers for states.

In another session, Shelly Staker from the Iowa State Education Association said that the “No Child Left Behind” program has caused schools to turn away from agricultural education, leading to cuts in local FFA and 4-H programs nationwide.

At the end of the small business session, participants told Mills that there should be a rural earmark for community development funds, expanded broadband capacity and completion of highway projects so more roads reach rural areas and more SBA programs for minorities.

At the strengthening the middle class in rural America session, Chris Peterson, a pork producer in Clear Lake, Iowa, and president of the Iowa Farmers Union, said the White House Rural Council, which is composed of Cabinet-level officials, needs more grass-roots involvement and to hear from people “on the bottom, the main street businesses, the farmers, people trying to raise a family out here.”

Peterson suggested a small family farm commission “like we did in the Clinton administration.” He said the concentration in the pork industry had reduced the number of pork producers in Iowa from 60,000 to 9,000 and that the way to revitalize rural America is “keep local money local longer before it leaves for a corporate boardroom.”

But Rick Hoffman of the East Iowa Machine Co. in Farley, Iowa, where the unemployment rate is 6 percent, said he can’t find employees

“They don’t want to be in manufacturing. Seems like there is a lot of overtraining,” Hoffman said.

Barnes from the White House Domestic Policy Council noted that the administration has been trying to bring together manufacturers and community colleges.

Gipp of United Tribes said that states should be encouraged to invest in Indian country and that tribal governments should be put on par with state governments in applying for access to federal programs.

Wyatt De Jong, the FFA national vice chairman, added that farming has taken a negative connotation and that it is not considered socially acceptable to be in it.

At a session on conservation and tourism job development, Dave White, chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, introduced Interior Secretary Salazar, who managed to bridge the different roles of Agriculture and Interior, but ended his talk with a statement that “It’s important that we preserve the working lands of America, as well as the recreation land.”

Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, also participated in the session. Partin said in a news release that he had told the officials that “the federal timber sale program is the single most efficient way of putting people back to work in the rural counties around our national forests.”

The No Child Left Behind law is “pulling us in the ditch,” said Dale Gruis of Future Farmers of America. Obama said the Education Department will allow more waivers for states.

In another session, Shelly Staker from the Iowa State Education Association said that the “No Child Left Behind” program has caused schools to turn away from agricultural education, leading to cuts in local FFA and 4-H programs nationwide.

At the end of the small business session, participants told Mills that there should be a rural earmark for community development funds, expanded broadband capacity and completion of highway projects so more roads reach rural areas and more SBA programs for minorities.

At the strengthening the middle class in rural America session, Chris Peterson, a pork producer in Clear Lake, Iowa, and president of the Iowa Farmers Union, said the White House Rural Council, which is composed of Cabinet-level officials, needs more grass-roots involvement and to hear from people “on the bottom, the Main Street businesses, the farmers, people trying to raise a family out here.”

Peterson suggested a small family farm commission “like we did in the Clinton administration.” He said the concentration in the pork industry had reduced the number of pork producers in Iowa from 60,000 to 9,000 and that the way to revitalize rural America is “keep local money local longer before it leaves for a corporate boardroom.”

But Rick Hoffman of the East Iowa Machine Co. in Farley, Iowa, where the unemployment rate is 6 percent, said he can’t find employees

“They don’t want to be in manufacturing. Seems like there is a lot of overtraining,” Hoffman said.

Barnes from the White House Domestic Policy Council noted that the administration has been trying to bring together manufacturers and community colleges.

Gipp of United Tribes said that states should be encouraged to invest in Indian country and that tribal governments should be put on par with state governments in applying for access to federal programs.

Wyatt De Jong, the FFA national vice chairman, added that farming has taken a negative connotation and that it is not considered socially acceptable to be in it.

At a session on conservation and tourism job development, Dave White, chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, introduced Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who managed to bridge the different roles of Agriculture and Interior, but ended his talk with a statement that “It’s important that we preserve the working lands of America, as well as the recreation land.”

Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, also participated in the session. Partin said in a news release that he had told the officials that “the federal timber sale program is the single most efficient way of putting people back to work in the rural counties around our national forests.”

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