At Iowa forum, Democratic presidential candidates vow to take on Big Ag

Antitrust enforcement took center stage at Saturday’s Heartland Forum in Storm Lake, Iowa, a platform for Democratic presidential hopefuls to share their visions for rural America. Nearly all of the candidates said tackling consolidation would be part of their rural agenda, with Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar calling it a main priority. Farmers at the forum were buoyed by the candidates’ attention to an issue that is a top priority for many rural communities that have been hollowed out by the effects of economic concentration and the powerful grip of agribusiness.

Six current and likely presidential contenders participated in the event, which was moderated by the town’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Art Cullen and two HuffPost journalists, Amanda Terkel and Zach Carter.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren greets Art Cullen, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist from the Storm Lake Times, at the Iowa forum. Photo by Damon Dahlen/HuffPost

Rural issues will be a focus for Democratic 2020 presidential candidates who hope to win over some of the communities who voted for President Donald Trump in 2016. Trump won 60 percent of small-town and rural votes to Hillary Clinton’s 26 percent, exceeding the typical Republican margin in those places. But support for the president is far from universal in rural communities, and the trade war has strained farmers’ enthusiasm for Trump. Democrats hope to capitalize on this fatigue, and rally the 40 percent of rural voters who disapprove of Trump’s performance, in the 2020 election.

Sen. Warren opened the day at Buena Vista University, placing rural issues in the context of her broader vision for addressing the country’s economic inequality. Three days before the forum, Warren released her agricultural platform which called for, among other things, stronger antitrust enforcement in the agriculture sector and unwinding the Bayer-Monsanto merger.

“I want an America that works, not just for those at the top, but an America that works for everyone,” she said when asked about her vision for rural America. She called for breaking up agribusiness giants “so that they don’t only have that kind of economic power … but also break up so they don’t have that kind of political power.”

“For far too long, the folks who are the giants in the industry just keep calling the shots,” she continued. “And this administration, and for far too long our federal government, has gone along with it.”

Warren was followed on stage by Julián Castro, the Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Obama administration; John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman; Klobuchar; and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who has not yet announced his candidacy.

Klobuchar was in perhaps the strongest position to discuss the finer points of rural policy, given her tenure on the Senate agriculture committee and ranking position on the antitrust subcommittee.

“Coming from a state that is major in agriculture, I believe that kids that grow up in rural America should be able to live in rural America,” she said. “And that means a strong safety net in our farm bill.”

Klobuchar joined Warren in railing against the stranglehold that large-scale agribusiness has on farmers. The loss of independent businesses, the rising price of farm inputs, and a lack of competition in the farm-equipment sector are just a few of the problems that farmers blame on consolidation in the farm economy.

“We are now entering what is essentially a new gilded age,” Klobuchar said. “We need to take on the power of these monopolies.” But she stopped short of endorsing a moratorium on agricultural mergers, as some farm-advocacy groups have urged and Sen. Warren has endorsed. Klobuchar said she would consider each proposed merger on its merits.

Castro discussed a range of issues, from funding rural hospitals to immigration to investing in public schools. “I would appoint people to the [Environmental Protection Agency] who actually believe in environmental protection,” he said in response to a question about how to make Midwestern farming more environmentally and economically resilient.

Delaney focused on funding and investment, calling for policy that would “make sure capital is flowing to rural America … Capital has left this region. That doesn’t mean people don’t invest here — they do. But the owners of that capital are often not located here anymore as they used to be.”

Ryan ended the event with a message of unification, claiming he could bridge the nation’s partisan divide because “Trump voters voted for me.”

Farmers see their priorities reflected on stage

Farmers traveled from across the Midwest to attend the event, with some rising as early as 12:30 a.m. to begin the trip—early even for farmers. Joe Behlen, of Vesper, Wisconsin, who grazes beef cattle and works as a water-management engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said it was important for him to attend because of the deterioration he’s seen in Vesper in recent years. He attributes that deterioration to consolidation that has pushed small farmers out of business. “If we have a strong family farm-based economy, we can have strong rural communities,” he said.

After the event, several attendees said they were pleased with the range of issues covered by the candidates. The discussion “adds to the understanding of what farmers are dealing with,” said Mary Dougherty, a consultant with the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, a group that organizes against large-scale industrial farming. She noted that the candidates’ emphasis on consolidation made sense, given that “monopoly is the message that’s going to win” with rural communities.

That sentiment was echoed by others who were pleased to hear candidates talking about an issue that for many years has been overshadowed by trendier policy proposals. “It was very impressive that almost everyone touched on antitrust and some of them touched on consolidation,” said Tommy Enright, a farmer from Amherst, Wisconsin, who serves as communications associate for the Wisconsin Farmers Union.  

Farm and rural advocacy groups have long pointed to concentration in agribusiness as a leading contributor to the collapse of rural communities. Many sectors of the agricultural economy are controlled by just a few multinational corporations. Mergers of food companies have resulted in losses of manufacturing jobs in small towns. The ongoing dairy crisis, in part caused by industrial dairies flooding the market, shutters nearly two farms every day in Wisconsin. Many farmers must travel for miles to reach a dealership that can repair their equipment, nearly half of which is manufactured by just two companies.

Another theme that resonated with farmers at the forum was framing food security as a national-security issue, including addressing the rise of foreign ownership of U.S. farmland. Warren in particular has made the issue a centerpiece of her rural platform. The amount of farmland owned by foreign companies totals a land mass the size of Virginia, she said in the pre-forum rally.

Tommy Enright echoed her concern: “If 20 years down the road there are only 3,000 huge dairy farms in the country, the biosecurity risk is enormous.”

Before the forum, a rallying cry

The forum was preceded by a rally at nearby Storm Lake High School. Dozens of farmers and advocates attended the event, which featured speakers from the National Farmers Union, Farm Aid, the Organization for Competitive Markets, the Association of American Indian Farmers, and the National Family Farm Coalition.

Anna Hankins, an Iowa farmer and representative of Farm Aid, opened the event by citing the challenges facing young farmers: “From skyrocketing land prices, to pre-existing debt … lack of access to affordable healthcare, lack of rural infrastructure, lack of good prices, the barriers are so great.”

Sarah Lloyd, a dairy farmer and director of special projects at the Wisconsin Farmers Union, milks about 350 cows with her husband outside of Wisconsin Dells. “We’re going broke,” she said. “Most likely by the end of this year we will not be milking cows anymore. I’m tired of being told as a farmer that I’ve got to just tighten my belt a little bit more, be a better businessperson. Because I’m not a bad businessperson. I cannot make a living if I have to interact with a market that is stacked against me.”

Yet the tone of the rally was generally upbeat, and speakers encouraged the group to unite around shared goals, particularly those outlined in the Farmer’s Bill of Rights that was released last year by Family Farm Action, which organized the rally. The document says farmers have a right to things like fair markets, local control, and transparent labeling. Sens. Warren and Cory Booker, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, have endorsed it.

Warren made an appearance at the rally, bounding onto the stage to cheers and applause. Washington “is working just great for giant agribusinesses, just not for farmers who work the land,” she said. Booker and O’Rourke also appeared, on-screen, and delivered short video messages.

Looking back as they look ahead

This isn’t the first time that Democratic presidential hopefuls have attempted to appeal to rural voters by promising to take on corporate agriculture.

As a candidate, Barack Obama pledged to promote local control over the expansion of large-scale livestock operations and more strictly regulate those operations. In 2010, the Departments of Justice and Agriculture hosted meetings across the country to hear from farmers about what policy interventions could help increase competition in agriculture.

But ultimately, no major policy action was taken by the Obama administration on the issue, a memory that still stings for a lot of farmers.

When asked whether he was optimistic that these candidates would deliver on their promises to take on corporate agriculture, Tommy Enright noted that the political climate has changed since Obama’s first campaign.

“Democrats know that they need the rural vote to get momentum, so it’s forcing their hand to some extent that now they have to talk about consolidation because that’s something that farmers get. It’s not sexy, but farmers get it,” he said. “If they get into power and then don’t do it, that’s going to backfire in a huge way.”