Democratic presidential hopefuls keep it brief on ag policies at Iowa State Fair speeches

With a few exceptions, presidential hopefuls in Iowa looking to win over moderates highlight their agriculture policies while others stick to their own key issues.


A farmer is seen getting ready for the day at the Iowa State Fair on Friday, August 9th, 2019. (Ryan Adams/ The Daily Iowan)

DES MOINES – In Iowa, one of the top corn and pork producing states in the country, presidential hopefuls visited the largest agriculture exposition of the year — the Iowa State Fair.

But, with a few exceptions, including trade with China, presidential hopefuls on the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox stage have stayed away from talking about agriculture to fairgoers.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is one exception. She highlighted her midwestern roots by talking at length about trade and ag policy during her speech, criticizing the Trump administration’s handling of the trade dispute and the EPA for granting 31 waivers for oil refineries to forego biofuel blend requirements.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox during the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, IA on Saturday, August 10, 2019.

Bruce Edwards, an accountant of West Des Moines, thought candidates should talk more about agriculture, especially highlighting the corn demand that could be lost from the 31 oil refineries exempt from the renewable fuel requirements.

“I’m a little surprised that Democrats aren’t talking about that issue more,” Edwards said. “They could really gain the upper hand with it.”

Although ethanol and renewable fuels were broached often in previous elections in Iowa, including in 2008, many presidential hopefuls shifted the conversation to trade and climate change when talking about agriculture.

Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee called for greener farming techniques, and Ryan said regenerative farming could potentially increase profits for farmers.  

Brian and Steva Haeflinger are pork producers and soybean farmers in Howard county, and said they disagree with Hickenlooper’s claim that a tariff war isn’t the way to make a deal with China.

“I think a lot of people like to think there was a nicer way, a cleaner way, an easier way, because it is a war, you can’t use that term lightly,” said Steva Haeflinger. “But I guess I would disagree (with Hickenlooper). I think [Trump] needed to do it.”

Shivansh Ahuja
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox during the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, IA on Saturday, August 10, 2019.

The couple wants to see more efforts to put agriculture education into public schools so children know where their milk comes from. Brian said he sees a lot of misconceptions around how farmers treat their animals, and said he treats his pigs very well.

Inslee mentioned the effects of climate change on Iowa farmers, having seen flooded fields after heavy rains and high river levels this spring on both sides of the state. He also called for more biofuels and alternative energy. 

But the topic of agriculture debate among the candidates revolved largely around trade between the U.S. and China.

President Trump put tariffs on Chinese goods last summer, which was met with retaliatory tariffs from China on U.S. automobiles and agricultural goods – soybeans, pork, and grain. Farmers across Iowa have felt the effects of ongoing trade dispute, which has made it more difficult for farmers to sell goods on an international market. Trump claims that China has been a bad actor in trade, pointing to currency manipulation and intellectual property theft.

Following months of negotiations, Trump raised tariffs on China on May 9 on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports, and in turn, China raised tariffs on U.S. goods by $60 billion.

California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, New Jersey, Sen. Cory Booker and Klobuchar, all condemned Trump for breaking his promise to farmers and forcing them to bear the brunt of the trade war.

Castro went on to tell reporters the trade war “is costing jobs and costing farmers their livelihood here in Iowa, and they’re just watching it go by. I would say to Iowa farmers: This is not what you bargained for; this man is not who he said he would be.”

With 24 candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination for Iowa voters to winnow, candidates need to prove themselves to Democratic voters. Though many candidates, such as former Vice President Joe Biden, Klobuchar, Hickenlooper, and Ryan have positioned themselves as moderate candidates who could pull in conservative or independent votes.

Tate Hildyard
Presidential candidate Juli‡n Castro speaks at the Iowa Des Moins Register Soapbox on Friday, August 9th, 2019. The Des Moins Register Soapbox is an annual tradition of the Iowa State Fair where politicians speak to citizens and answer questions. (Tate Hildyard/ The Daily Iowan)

Stu Swanson, a corn and soybean farmer from Iowa, said he, and many other producers, were frustrated with dropping market prices and fewer buyers that were a result of the U.S.’s turbulent trade relationship. But, he sees the tariffs as a long-term game.

He voted for Trump in 2016, and said he is likely to vote for him again in 2020, but that he’s keeping tabs on the Democratic field. However, he hasn’t seen anyone on the Democratic field yet whose messages resonate with him.

He said he’s worried by a comment from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., saying that as president she would guarantee an income for farmers.

“We want to earn a fair living, we don’t want to receive a paycheck from the government,” Swanson said.

He said that he was most frustrated with the progress of the renegotiated USMCA trade deal between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada to replace NAFTA — more so than trade negotiations with China. The bill is currently stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

“We have (USMCA) at the finish line, all we have to do is advance it and we can score a victory,” he said. “China, to me, is a long term deal.”

Yin Jiaming, although he works as a researcher for Corteva, an agriscience company that sells seed product, said agriculture wasn’t a big factor in his decision for who to caucus for.

He said he was leaning toward Harris and Warren because they were women, and he wanted to see a woman elected to the White House. Another top priority for Jiaming in deciding the nominee is someone who can defeat Trump.