Farm country could swing the election

November 6, 2016

The path to the White House could run through Iowa cornfields and Pennsylvania dairy farms, Nevada cattle ranches and Ohio soybean rows.

Those swing states’ rural voters will help determine whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump sitting in the Oval Office next year. In Tuesday’s election they’ll have plenty to consider in the candidates’ proposals on taxes and farm subsidies, renewable energy and environmental regulations, immigration and trade.Both candidates have key allies and agricultural advisers who hail from Nebraska and Iowa.For example, Clinton is close with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor. Vilsack has said Clinton would be the better advocate for rural communities, bolstering regional food systems and promoting renewable energy production.Trump’s top agriculture adviser is Charles Herbster of Falls City, Nebraska, who said that the Republican nominee might have been born in New York City but that his policies would be best for farmers and ranchers.Herbster pointed in particular to Trump’s intention to completely eliminate the federal estate tax, which critics call the “death tax.”That’s a key point for those hoping to pass the family farm on to their children, particularly given increases in farmland valuations, he and Trump adviser Sam Clovis said.“I live in Iowa,” Clovis said recently at a National Press Club event. “We’ve seen property values skyrocket.”Clinton supporters note that only a tiny percentage of farm operations qualify for the tax.“It’s gonna hit you if you have a billion-dollar farm,” Kathleen Merrigan, former deputy agriculture secretary, said in response to Clovis’ point. “This is not going to hit mom and dad who want to transfer their farm upon their death to their kids.”A key piece of agriculture policy is the farm bill that Congress approves every five years or so — legislation that includes everything from crop insurance subsidies to disaster relief.Clinton supporters note that as a senator she supported the 2008 farm bill that Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, voted against as a congressman, citing budget concerns. Trump in the past also has talked about the need to rein in federal nutrition assistance, which includes the program commonly referred to as food stamps.The Clinton team says Trump’s approach could endanger the farm bill because the marriage of food stamps and farm programs is what has united rural and urban lawmakers in supporting farm legislation.Clovis rejected the idea that Trump would pull food stamps from the farm bill. But he suggested that Trump would look at crop insurance and other subsidies to see how well they are working. Falling commodity prices have created a new environment, and price supports need to be addressed, he said.“We’re going to have to start taking a look at weaning ourselves from some of those issues out there, allowing the markets to settle some of these factors,” Clovis said.Both candidates have expressed support for renewable fuels, including federal mandates that require that ethanol be blended into the fuel supply.Clinton supporter Pam Johnson has been raising corn and soybeans on her farm near Floyd, Iowa, for nearly four decades.A former president of the National Corn Growers Association, Johnson had the chance to chat with Clinton in April 2015 when Clinton was talking about the importance of advanced biofuels. Johnson told her that in order to get to advanced biofuels, she has to first support corn ethanol.Clinton later penned an op-ed about the importance of the federal mandate that includes ethanol. Johnson said that shows that Clinton listens.Trump supporters, however, note that the Clinton campaign also solicited advice from California regulators about whether that state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard could be applied nationally. Midwestern farm critics say the California system disadvantages ethanol.Farmers also are concerned about environmental regulations, particularly those known as Waters of the United States. They worry that the Environmental Protection Agency will show up and regulate the amount of runoff into the ditch on one side of their farm.Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, pointed to those rules, as well as EPA restrictions on herbicides, and said that Trump would take a different approach.“He believes that when you’re working with federal agencies it should be science-based and not making decisions that are ideologically based,” Ernst said.Merrigan said she has seen how water contamination can destroy a small rural town and that water quality is important to farmers. But she also suggested that much of the talk about regulating water in ditches is overblown and that Clinton is committed to better communication with farm country on those regulations.Johnson said she trusts that Clinton will listen to farmers’ concerns about the water rules.“She’s willing to sit down and talk with people who don’t agree with her,” Johnson said.Trade is huge for U.S. agriculture, which relies on overseas markets to move billions of dollars in product. Both candidates oppose the trade agreement known as the Trans Pacific Partnership, however.Herbster said it’s a misconception that Trump is against trade — he just wants better deals.Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Trump supporter, is headed to China and Japan within days of the election on a mission to further open those markets to Iowa producers. He said Trump’s rhetoric on trade can lead to more favorable agreements, not trade wars.“We can do better under Trump than we’ve been able to do under (President Barack) Obama,” Branstad said.Johnson said that while Trump has repeatedly slammed the North American Free Trade Agreement, farmers know that they have actually benefited from NAFTA’s robust trading relationships with Canada and Mexico.On immigration, Clinton supporters say agriculture would benefit from the kind of comprehensive reform that Clinton favors, including a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally. Cracking down on illegal immigration, meanwhile, is a signature issue for Trump as he talks about building a wall along the border with Mexico and deporting those who aren’t here legally.Clovis acknowledged the potential impact on farming of an immigration crackdown, noting that one in four agricultural workers is in the country illegally.Clovis said that Trump is going to enforce the laws but that he also would sit down and work with industries to streamline the legal immigration system so they can get the labor they need.“Agriculture depends on immigrant work more than any other industry,” Clovis said.