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Will Agriculture Lose its Big Moment?


Iowa and United States Flag

As the country settles in for politics’ version of the Senior Olympics in November when President Joe Biden (81) faces former president Donald Trump (77) in the general election, one state’s agricultural industry will start looking to the future. The question is whether the future will still include a high-profile event that brings so much attention to that industry.  


Since 1972, Iowa Democrats held their presidential nominee contest -- their caucuses -- before any other state. In 1976, Iowa Republicans joined them by holding their caucuses before all other states, too. That privilege not only brought hundreds of millions of dollars over the decades in economic activity (commercials, staff, travel, meals, lodging, transportation, campaign literature, and events), but it also afforded the state’s various agricultural interests the national spotlight and campaign promises from candidates.


Candidates also help Iowa politicians find opportunities. Longtime governor Terry Branstad became U.S. Ambassador to China under Trump. Former governor Tom Vilsack became U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under Barack Obama and then again under Joe Biden. Those were just a few.


But it was the candidates’ visits to the state over the years that raised the visibility on agriculture’s challenges and its potential…often to candidates who hadn’t been exposed to it up close before.

Would ethanol producers’ push for a Renewable Fuels Standard – which guaranteed a percentage of biofuels in the nation’s supply – have risen to prominence 20 years ago without the exposure that Iowa received during those many presidential candidate visits?


Would E15, the 15 percent ethanol blend, have worked its way to year-round sales (starting next year) if it weren’t for the caucus cycles?


During his presidential run through Iowa during the 2008 cycle, former Arizona senator John McCain -- an opponent of ethanol subsidies – still quipped frequently, “I drink a glass of ethanol every morning with (longtime Iowa Senator) Chuck Grassley for breakfast.” 


McCain still passed on those subsidies. But he understood how important ethanol was to Iowa. 

The wind industry, too, felt the affection over the years. Grassley was part of that also. He was able to champion the federal wind energy tax credit…the “father” of that credit his moniker proclaimed.


How often do candidates get asked about the status of the Farm Bill when campaigning in New Hampshire? Or South Carolina? Or Nevada? Sure, it may happen, but likely not nearly as often as during a campaign stop to a rural Iowa town.


Or even the candidates’ strolls through the Iowa State Fair, a must stop for any serious contender. Most will wander over to the Iowa Pork Producers Tent and flip a chop or two on the grill, chatting with the hog farmer volunteers and the scores of pork lovers waiting in line.


Presidential candidates could check out animal barns to see the prized big boar, walk up to sculptures made from butter, speak at an old-fashioned soapbox setup, or vote for themselves by dropping a piece of corn into a Mason jar in an unscientific tradition to “Cast a Kernel.”


But it wasn’t just the experience of seeing those attractions. It was also the opportunity to surround themselves in conversation with some of the one million fair goers each year who showed up, many of them from the state’s smaller communities where agriculture is either their direct livelihood or at least connected to it.


Candidates may not get experiences like that elsewhere.


The concern is that this exposure may be ending. The 2024 Iowa Caucuses meant change. And they could foreshadow diminished influence for the state. The Republican Party still hosted its caucuses before any other state. But January 15th’s contest wasn’t the same finale as previous cycles. Donald Trump as the former president was an overwhelming favorite.


Far fewer national media traversed the state for months with the caucus night outcome determined long before 2023’s calendar flipped to the new year. Trump campaigned in the state far less than his challengers. Many of those challengers didn’t even last until caucus night.


Mike Pence, Tim Scott, Perry Johnson, Will Hurd, Larry Elder, Doug Burgum all dropped out early. That left just Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Ryan Binkley campaigning into January.


Trump’s limited presence in the state also limited multi-candidate gatherings, where agriculture could get some added prominence. The Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit still took place. But Trump didn’t show up. That meant neither did much of the national press. A lost opportunity for agriculture.


Iowa Democrats’ caucuses were already expected to be lessened in prominence, since there was an incumbent president running. But the Democratic National Committee subtracted from it even more by stripping the state of its first-in-the-nation status and relegating it later than the early states group.


No Democrats, not Biden or the lesser-known candidates challenging him, even bothered to campaign through the state before the caucuses.


No chance for biofuels and meat producers to make their case about why the immediate future can’t be all about electric vehicles and meatless meals.

  

The real fear in Iowa is that it won’t change in 2028. Barring something unforeseen, there won’t be an incumbent Democratic president running in 2028 (either a Republican is president or Biden could be finishing his final term depending on which candidate wins this November), so the caucus/primary process could offer several prominent candidates.


But if Iowa’s caucuses aren’t among the early group of contests, then those candidates will likely not spend as much time moving through the state’s 99 counties -- mostly rural -- and getting educated on agriculture’s needs.


Education and exposure are vital, according to industry experts.


And for Republicans? Trump won the 2024 caucuses, so he could work to keep them first in 2028 if he is president again and if no one in the state has ignited his ire to make him oppose Iowa’s leadoff privilege.


Too soon to know, but not too soon to worry. Corn, beans, hogs, ethanol, wind. Agriculture has much at stake in the state. Keeping Iowa’s political contests first, for at least one of the two major political parties, could reassure the anxious that presidential candidates will come back often and understand why agriculture is part of the foundation of the state but requires the support of the candidates when they get to Washington, D.C. for it to flourish.     

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American Farmland Owner Hayfields mountains

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