For almost a year, presidential candidates have been crisscrossing Iowa, wooing voters in a state that relies on agriculture for about one-third of its economy. But even here, most voters live in cities or suburbs and don't have a first-hand connection to the farm.
That makes it difficult to get candidates talking about food system issues from school lunches, to crop supports, to water quality. Yet these all fall under the federal agriculture department. If candidates aren’t talking about them in Iowa, it’s possible they’ll be left out of the campaigns entirely.
Iowa State University political scientist Mack Shelley says candidates have to balance local appeal and modern concerns with an agenda that will resonate nationwide. So on the trail, the closest many candidates get to our food system is trying out famous fair food on a stick.
“You have candidates showing up at the state fair,” Shelley said. “Sometimes they go to pig races and they hang around on hay bales and farms and, not that that's necessarily typical of Iowa, but to attract support within the state you kind of have to start there and build out from that point.”
While many of the presidential campaigns have published platforms that touch on food and agriculture issues, often in a set of issues targeted at rural America, they’re not often among talking points on the stump or in debates.
There is one agriculture issue all politicians talk about in Iowa: ethanol.
“We've been very pleased with how attentive the candidates have been to Iowa's farmers,” said Derek Eadon of the lobbying group America’s Renewable Future. “It's exciting and, I think, shows the strength of the issue.”
Eadon says his group gave only Ted Cruz and Rand Paul “bad” ratings on support for the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal law that props up the ethanol industry. All three Democrats and the rest of the Republicans got a “good” rating.
Ethanol is a natural fit on the campaign trail because it links early-voting Iowa with Corn Belt neighbors like Illinois and Nebraska. Shelley says that regional-reach is in the job description for the first four state contests: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
“They’re in some sense meant to be representative of the Midwest or the Northeast or the Southeast or the West,” Shelley said.
Even though most candidates express support for ethanol, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re paying attention to other concerns farmers have. After all, there’s a lot more to our food system than renewable fuels.
“The agricultural issues are probably going to be the deciding factor in most caucuses for me,” said Aaron Lehman, a farmer in rural Polk County, Iowa.
Lehman says he wants to hear candidates’ views on the farm safety net, trade and conservation, but those don’t often come up when candidates are talking to the national TV cameras that have followed them around Iowa.
“Agricultural issues aren't automatically going to bubble to the top,” Lehman said, “even here in Iowa.”
Lehman meets candidates and asks campaigns directly about the issues he cares about. That’s something Iowans are uniquely poised to do.
Some say a specific agriculture agenda isn’t necessary because farms are not very different from other businesses.
“We need fair access to markets, we need a stable economy, we need to deal with currency issues and currency manipulation,” said Kirk Leeds, CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association, as he delineated the list of issues that matter most to the soybean growers he represents.
Any business interest, Leeds says, would make a very similar list. Still, when Leeds threw his personal support behind Marco Rubio, the Florida senator’s campaign included him on a list of endorsements from agricultural leaders.
At a recent campaign stop in Ames, Hillary Clinton’s nod to agriculture was, predictably, a mention of Iowa’s leadership on renewable fuels... and this passing reference from her closing remarks.
“Every single child, whether you’re the granddaughter of a factory worker or farmer,” Clinton said, “or a grandson of a trucker or teacher, you will have the opportunity to go as far as your hard work, your talent will take you.”
The speech could have worked anywhere, even with the mention of a farmer.
“I am interested in ag issues,” said voter Laura Miller, an Ames resident who attended the Clinton event. “But I haven’t heard a lot on the campaign trail about ag issues.”
“[Agriculture]’s pretty far down on the priority list,” said Larry Koehrsen, another Ames voter who was there. “Most of the candidates recognize the political sensitivity of ethanol and make some effort to deal with it. I don’t know how honest all of them are in how they deal with it.”
Koehrsen said he thought water quality and conservation deserved more attention. Unlike farmer Aaron Lehman, though, Koehrsen, a retired engineer, won’t pick a candidate based on agricultural issues. Most campaigns are more interested in the Larry Koehrsens than they are in the Aaron Lehmans.
Iowa farmers have done what they can for almost a year to convince candidates to care about agriculture. Whether their efforts will be reflected in the campaigns after caucus night may depend on how long the nominating process takes, and whether an ag-heavy state ultimately tips someone from candidate to nominee.