When it comes to counting individual voters, there’s no way Rural America can compete with New York City and other urban centers. But every vote adds up and, as President Donald Trump found out in 2016, rural citizens can help move a few more electoral votes and lead a candidate to victory.
Now many Democrats, at the urging of former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and other advocates, are trying to tap the same audience. It helps that a primarily rural state like Iowa is the first in the nation to hold a caucus. (Although that status may now be in doubt — thanks to the vote counting debacle that is still being challenged as we go to press. But that’s fodder for another story.)
Many of the Democrats took Vilsack’s plea to heart and built rural policy positions into their campaigns. Most of the Democratic candidates proposed to slow or reverse consolidation in agribusiness and pledged to use farm bill conservation programs to pay farmers to curb climate change. Several candidates also either proposed ways to boost commodity prices or farm program benefits.
The candidates not only have addressed farm issues “in a very serious way with their position papers," but they also have made “a real effort to come to rural Iowa and to connect with rural Iowans on the issues,” said Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union.
Trump’s budgets — including his most recent — are providing strong fodder for Democrats in farm country. They have repeatedly proposed deep cuts to crop insurance and tighter payment limits on subsidies. But his administration made no effort to get the ideas included in the 2018 Farm Bill he ultimately signed into law, and Trump hasn’t personally pushed the proposals either. At the same time, Trump has continued a very robust outreach effort to attract the “farm vote.”
Here is a look at the positions taken by the five Democratic candidates who are leading the nomination process:
As vice president, Joe Biden seldom got involved directly in farm policy, and he hasn’t indicated during the campaign that he would support changes to commodity programs.
But he has the endorsement of former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and during a campaign stop in western Iowa with him in December, Biden praised the productivity of the state’s farmers and said they aren’t looking for a “payoff" from the government.
“No one in the whole world has ever produced as much food and fiber with such alacrity,” Biden said, according to a local news account.
His rural plan includes a proposal “to expand the Obama-Biden Administration’s microloan program for new and beginning farmers, doubling the maximum loan amount to $100,000.” Biden also wants increased funding for USDA farm ownership and operating loans.
Like the other candidates, he promises to take action to curb market concentration in agribusiness. "The Biden Administration will protect small and medium-sized farmers and producers by strengthening enforcement of the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts and the Packers and Stockyards Act,” his plan says.
Pete Buttigieg has no legislative record and has generally steered away from addressing commodity policy. But he talks on the campaign trail about the economic challenges facing farmers and his rural plan includes several proposals to address market concentration, including taking on biotech companies.
“Farmers are being squeezed by all sides, squeezed by consolidation, giving folks fewer and fewer places to buy from or to sell to,” Buttigieg said at an Iowa Farmers Union forum in December.
His rural policy proposals would double funding for antitrust enforcement, “revive regional/state antitrust enforcement” and “reinvigorate” USDA's old Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, which the Trump administration folded into the Agricultural Marketing Service.
In a jab at the biotech seed giants, Buttigieg is proposing to revise patent law to allow farms to replant seeds grown on their farms. There would be an acreage limit on plantings, and farmers would be prohibited from selling the seeds.
His plan to address climate change includes investing nearly $50 billion over 10 years in agricultural research as well as expanding farm bill conservation programs.
During the campaign, Amy Klobuchar has chafed at proposals by her rivals that she considers unrealistic.
Since joining the Senate in 2007, she has been active on the Senate Agriculture Committee and has been a vocal advocate for her state’s biofuels industry.
Now she has proposals to index commodity program rates to reflect market changes, and she wants to increase average premium subsidies for crop insurance.
Her farm policy plan calls for tightening payment limits as well as indexing commodity program rates and increasing crop insurance subsidies. “As President, she will work to ensure payments are directed toward those who need them most, including small and family-owned farms,” her plan says.
She also wants to “fully fund” permanent disaster programs and promises to appoint a special commission to study the economic problems facing many dairy producers.
To address market concentration, she says her administration will investigate mergers to “assess whether the integration of services insulate agricultural corporations from competition.”
Her proposals for using USDA to address climate change are generally more modest than her rivals. But her ideas include spending more on research and Conservation Innovation Grants to find the best ways of increasing soil carbon.
Despite his support for farm bills, Bernie Sanders has provided full-throated support for supply management.
His rural policy proposals include establishing a national grain reserve and other supply management programs “to prevent shortages and surpluses to ensure farmers make a living wage and ensure consumers receive a high-quality, stable, and secure supply of agricultural goods.” He also wants to enact a “comprehensive disaster coverage” program.
He has promised to break up agribusiness giants and impose a moratorium on future mergers, and he would reestablish GIPSA. He also wants a national “right-to-repair” law that would ensure farmers can repair or modify equipment without having to use an authorized dealer.
An overarching goal of Sanders, however, is to move toward paying farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
He wants to move USDA “away from supporting agribusiness and factory farming to supporting family-based agriculture and moving aggressively on climate change. What we will do is pay farmers to capture carbon,” he said at the Iowa event.
His rural policy plan calls for transitioning U.S. agriculture to “regenerative, independent family farming practices,” including livestock systems “that are ecologically sound, improve soil health, and sequester carbon in soil.”
Citing New Deal farm policies, Warren has proposed to boost commodity prices by taking land out of production and raising USDA’s marketing loan rates to ensure that farmers can cover their production costs. She claims her proposals would cost the government less than existing policy.
Loan rates serve as a floor under commodity prices since farmers can claim “loan deficiency payments,” or LDPs, from USDA when market prices fall below the rates. The existing loan rate for corn is $2.20 per bushel for corn. According to USDA data, the average total cost of producing corn over the past 10 years has been $3.96 a bushel.
Her rural policy proposals include a pledge to review and reverse existing mergers that she deems to be anticompetitive, and she also wants a national right-to-repair law. “My administration will bring vertical integration cases to break up integrated agribusinesses,” she says.
She also wants to weaken commodity checkoff programs by making participation by producers voluntary. The research and promotion programs are funded by fees that USDA can assess after a vote of the affected industry.
Her proposals to address climate change include plowing money into the Conservation Stewardship Program, increasing its budget from $1 billion to $15 billion annually.