They deserve to be heard

EDITORIALS

BY ART CULLEN

Five Democratic candidates for President speak volumes to us by showing up Saturday, far from an airport, at Buena Vista University for the Heartland Forum on rural issues sponsored by the Iowa Farmers Union, The Storm Lake Times, Huffington Post and Open Markets Action Fund. We are grateful to welcome Julian Castro of Texas, John Delaney of Maryland, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Tim Ryan of Ohio and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to Storm Lake to discuss the future of Rural America. It is the first such forum devoted exclusively to rural affairs since 2004.

The main problem with Democrats is not showing up in flyover country, and they paid for it with the election of Donald Trump.

These five are showing up. Delaney campaigned with JD Scholten last summer, and has more field offices than any other candidate in Iowa. Castro has campaigned in Storm Lake three times in the past eight months. Klobuchar has been reaching south of her border for a couple years, and probably is the most fluent in ag policy. Warren rolled out an anti-trust in agriculture agenda ahead of the forum this week. We don’t know Ryan, but if he knows Youngstown he actually knows what rural communities are up against.

Many other candidates had their chance and passed on it.

With Warren in, Bernie Sanders stayed out. Beto O’Rourke had time for Oprah Winfrey but not the Farmers Union. Joe Biden is so busy making up his mind he can’t make Iowa. What better place to announce than in front of a crowd of Farmers Union members, the roots of rural progressive policy? There are others too numerous to mention who don’t quite understand yet why Democrats lost the last election, and how they won back the House. They will be drinking white wine at a fundraiser instead.

Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana, expressed his regrets: He is late in a legislative session and must be in Helena on alert. Fair enough. He knows a bull from a heifer, he is down to earth and worried greatly about climate change. Castro’s mother was supposed to receive an award in San Antonio on Saturday, but his twin Joaquin will stand in as his double for mom’s sake — we thank her for giving Julian up. Warren told us in January that she wanted to participate, but some of her staff came up with other plans, as it often goes. Warren stayed good on her word to us, and said she will be here. It speaks to integrity.

We are delighted that these serious candidates care enough about the forgotten byways to remember us and show up with their version of a road map for shared American prosperity. As we detailed Wednesday, rural Iowa has profound challenges that demand immediate and thoughtful long-term federal responses: a farm income crash, an implosion of the dairy industry, the promise of regenerative agriculture, how to save rural hospitals and nursing homes, and the future of private colleges that are jewels of the Midwest threatened for their very survival. Those all are on the agenda. They are important questions that will be elevated in the national debate as the Iowa caucus cycle starts to pick up with spring. The candidates who answered the call from the Farmers Union deserve our special consideration.

An anti-trust agenda

Ahead of the forum, Warren issued a policy statement on concentration in agriculture and food production. What’s interesting is that the main thrusts — opposing mergers in the seed/chemical industry and enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act — could be found in any number of Sen. Chuck Grassley’s newsletters. Which means that the issues have power among rural constituencies, and farmers in particular.

She would ban foreign ownership of farmland — already the law in Iowa. She would demand price transparency in livestock markets. She would oppose the Bayer-Monsanto merger (or the Dow-DuPont merger, for that matter). She is on the same page with Grassley.

Warren gets into some uncertain territory on vertical integration, but we understand the sentiment. Consolidation has transformed the livestock production system, and it is beyond us how you unravel such a complex yarn. We believe that integrators wanted to eliminate the independent producers when they ramped up production in 1998 and ran prices to nothing. Those producers are long gone. Warren would eliminate contract feeding. Now, that is one of the few ways a young farmer can be assured a steady income. Much of the risk in livestock involves ownership, and contracts help producers without much capital avoid risk. We cite this to demonstrate how difficult it can be to undo the system. Calling for more protection for contract growers, who have been abused in the poultry industry especially, is where Warren hits the mark.

But, at least, somebody is talking about it, finally. Warren has been at the policy forefront. We are eager for the other contenders to introduce their own ag agenda.