Agricultural issues have largely gone under the radar throughout most of the caucus campaign season, despite the fact that Iowa is ground zero in the race for the presidency.
Federal farm and food policies have been a hot topic in some limited campaign circles, but such discussion has been a rarity in most of the meet-and-greet events held by presidential candidates.
Just like voters all around the nation, Iowa caucus-goers are much more likely to be interested in a candidate's views on the war in Iraq, or health care, or immigration, rather than farm subsidies or food safety. And candidates tend to give them what they want.
But some of the candidates are beginning to show an understanding of the importance of issues relating to agriculture. In an interview this week with Iowa Independent, Iowa Farmers Union president Chris Petersen said that some of the candidates are now "seeing the light."
Petersen said he was disappointed in the early stages of the campaign, when candidates weren't talking about their positions on farm policies. He said that he hoped candidates would focus more on family farms and how federal policies affect the food that every American eats.
"My biggest disappointment was at the Harkin Steak Fry," said Petersen. "In the middle of a cow pasture in rural Iowa and nobody could utter the words 'family farm' or 'rural America' in all of those speeches. I just couldn't believe it." That gathering of thousands of Democrats on Sept. 16 was hosted by Iowa's own Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Petersen said that as the campaign has progressed, more of the candidates have been coming around to the idea of talking about agriculture. Still, he said, the candidates tend to only talk about agriculture when they're in front of a group of farmers. "When they get in a bigger audience they seem to forget it," said Petersen. "And I say, hey, everybody in this country eats. And everybody puts gas in their car and flips a light switch." Agriculture, from food to renewable energy, has an impact on the life of every American.
The Iowa Farmers Union held its Food and Family Farm Presidential Summit in Des Moines on Nov. 10, and all of the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates were invited to attend and speak. None of the Republican candidates attended, but Democrats Barack Obama, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton all made their case to the organization's members. Read Iowa Independent's liveblog of the event.
"Every one of them that spoke at the summit, I feel, did a good job," said Petersen. "I think they all realize that part of the future absolutely has to involve localized agriculture. And because of energy and food safety, I think they're going to remember us this time."
The Iowa Farmers Union does not endorse candidates in caucus or primary elections, Petersen said, but individual members are encouraged to support or endorse candidates regardless of party. "Our game is all about advocacy and educating them," Petersen said, "and hopefully getting them to do some of the right things. Whoever the nominee is, we really want to work together and find solutions to the problems out here."
Petersen also has a bit of advice: "These candidates, if they talk the talk, and combine family farms, and then renewable energy, and food safety, and food quality, and the environment -- they just got themselves the largest voting bloc out there. Whoever is the nominee, I hope they remember our issues and our problems -- and some of the solutions that are being presented to them from the grassroots."