DES MOINES, Iowa—The Ag Summit convened this morning just off the slightly run-down corner of East 30th and Walnut streets, a stone’s throw from establishments such as Fairground Hardware, Marty’s Barber Shop, Rumors Tattoos ’n’ Piercings and the Home Plate Diner.
At a table inside the diner Friday evening, a middle-aged man named Greg is finishing dinner with three of his seven adopted children.
When a reporter asks whether he knows so many Republican presidential prospects are about to descend on the fairgrounds across East 30th Street, Greg’s answer is succinct: “Oh yeah, we know they’re coming.”
Greg, who expects “a lot of hot air” at the Iowa Agriculture Summit, sounds fed up with politicians who come through the state making promises they don’t deliver on.
“They never do what they say they’ll do.”
He’s worried about two big issues: so many Americans dependent on welfare, and national security at a time the Islamist terrorist group ISIS is rampaging and slaughtering its way through Iraq and Syria even as Iran moves closer to a nuclear bomb.
He had to go on welfare once himself, Greg says, but believes it should be a “hand up” and not a way of life.
He declines to pick a single Republican candidate he can support for president, but he knows “the guy we have needs to go.”
All Eyes on Iowa
This morning before 8 EST, more than 200 reporters, camera operators and other representatives of regional, national and foreign media outlets flooded the Elwell Family Food Center and an adjoining tent on the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
“To be free, America needs to feed itself, fuel itself and fight for itself,” says @GovMikeHuckabee.
The crowd of more than 1,000 settled into 16 rows of 55 chairs on the smooth concrete slabs of the main hall, where—when the fair is on—judges normally sample breads, puddings, pies and other food from 4-H and other exhibitors.
What’s being sampled today, though, is a whole other variety—nine of the men who might just want their vote to be the Republican standard-bearer for president when the storied Iowa caucuses are held next year in the first contest of the 2016 campaign season.
If crop insurance, price supports and ethanol mandates seem increasingly far from the concerns of typical Americans, all the more reason in the mind of Ag Summit organizer and host Bruce Rastetter to draw attention to agriculture’s place in the U.S. economy.
“Not another industry affects Americans more every day than agriculture,” Rastetter said in opening remarks.
“Decisions like these are best made on the local level,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told Rassteter about “overreach” by the Environmental Protection Agency on everything in farming from dust to ditches. “Washington, D.C, can provide the safety net, but they shouldn’t dictate terms.”
From the time Christie took the stage shortly after 10 a.m. EST until Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s closing act slated for 3:50 p.m. EST, everything about the Ag Summit was designed to give prospective presidential candidates a chance to show some understanding and care for trade promotion, biotech and other issues of importance to the American farmer and related industries.
Between Christie and Walker would come fellow GOP stars Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and four former governors—Jeb Bush of Florida, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Rick Perry of Texas and George Pataki of New York.
Focus on Farmers, Modern Agriculture
Here’s the way Eric Woolson, a former news reporter and editor put it in his role as spokesman for Rastetter and the summit:
Every four years Iowa becomes an epicenter of American politics, often shaping and almost always reflecting national policy movements. Unfortunately, until now there has not been a forum solely dedicated to matters that directly affect Iowa farmers who feed and fuel not just the country, but the world.
Besides renewable fuels, Rastetter wanted White House-worthy candidates to navigate topics including biosciences, genetically modified food, grain and livestock markets, land conservation, and a bushel and a peck of federal subsidies. Each participant got 20 minutes on stage with him.
“To be free, America needs to feed itself, fuel itself and fight for itself,” Huckabee said in a well-received one-liner that got to the heart of a shared message about the need for government not to endanger U.S. economic strength and self-sufficiency.
Many in this crowd appeared primed to hear from Bush and Walker—the one a proven, two-term governor of a large, faraway state, the other an upstart reformer and recall survivor from a neighboring state.
And interestingly, not only did Bush speak plainly about the eventual need to end Washington’s ethanol-promoting renewable fuel standard of 2007—so cherished by Iowa’s agricultural industry—but Walker picked up the theme hours later.
The audience listened intently as Bush, the third “2016’er” on hand, walked through a series of issues including immigration, where he stood by his support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, many of whom take jobs in the agriculture industry.
“We have to begin to rein in this top-down regulation system,” Bush also said, where Washington is “the be all and end all.”
“This president,” Bush said, “has used authority he doesn’t have to go way beyond what any president has done in the past.”
“Not another industry affects Americans more every day than agriculture,” Bruce Rastetter says at #AgSummit.
One well-received proposal: Put officials in charge of agencies who have “practical experience in the fields they are regulating.”
Bush also seemed to please by not claiming he knew how things work in Iowa, instead prefacing comments with what he learned from similar situations in Florida.
Perry identified “getting rid of Dodd-Frank,” the sweeping federal oversight of the finance industry passed by Congress after the 2007 meltdown, as key to freeing up capital for investment in jobs.
The former Texas governor, who grew up on a ranch, connected with a passing reference to his experience as agriculture commissioner in the Lone Star State.
Cruz, while he spoke strongly against Washington’s “corporate cronyism” and “picking winners and losers” through the Export-Import Bank and whatever other means—including crop subsidies and ethanol mandates—may have earned grudging respect by sticking to his guns.
“I have every bit of faith that businesses can continue to do well without going to Washington on bended knee asking for subsidies, asking special favors,” Cruz said.
“I’ll tell you, people are pretty fed up, I think, with politicians who … don’t do anything that they said they would do,” Cruz said.
As if addressing Greg in the Home Plate Diner, he added: “I will do what I say I will do and I will tell the truth.”
Also on the bill was a latecomer, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who only recently let it be known that he too is testing the presidential waters.
Not a single likely Democratic candidate—from overwhelming favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden on down—accepted Rastetter’s invitation.
Keeping Agriculture Relevant
Rastetter, whose fortune and influence is based in part on ethanol and hogs and who the media typically saddles with the label of “agribusiness mogul,” long has been a major donor, lobbyist and player in Iowa politics.
More recently, as president of the Iowa State University Board of Regents, he has extended his reach into university’s respected agriculture program.
Through the Ag Summit, primarily his creation, Rastetter is determined to keep agriculture policy—which these days divides and unites conservatives and liberals in unexpected ways—relevant in American politics.
“I will do what I say I will do and I will tell the truth,” says @SenTedCruz at #AgSummit
Three big-name Republicans marked as “confirmed” earlier aren’t coming after all: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore and New York real estate magnate Donald Trump.
Others declined the invitation: Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Other speakers—from Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, to Sen. Joni Ernst, the state’s newest GOP star— dot the Ag Summit’s agenda. But to some extent they are punctuation points to break up Rastetter’s sit-downs with the “2016ers.”
By the time Walker followed Graham, Pataki and Santorum to bat cleanup for the afternoon session, no one at first blush appeared to have made a notable mistake or misstep.
Except for Cruz, by and large the candidates were at pains to explain why modern agriculture presented defensible objections to their otherwise conservative, free-market, no-government-interference stances.
Bush and Walker showed a bit more boldness by suggesting strongly that the federal renewable fuel standard’s days of mandating a corn-based ethanol component to gasoline are numbered.
Walker also prescribed greater use of federal block grants to state and local governments to solve infrastructure, education and social problems that they know best.
Besides repeated references to his youth in Plainview, Iowa, Walker appeared to connect with small-town American ideals of neighbors helping “down and out” neighbors who eventually should stand back up on their own feet.
“We’re willing to help you out,” Walker said, when asked about increased enrollment in food stamps. That isn’t the same, he suggested, as being too shy to say “we expect you out there” on the field again like suited-up football players just waiting for the word from their coach.
In backing work or training requirements as a condition of food stamps, it’s not about making it harder to get public assistance, he said to loud applause, “we’re making it easier to get a job.”
This report has been updated.