WASHINGTON, March 11, 2015 – Not everyone who graced the stage at the Iowa State Fairgrounds was asked the same question, but moderator Bruce Rastetter did a great job making sure they responded to several key issues, while limiting each one to about 20 minutes. Here’s an overview of how they answered.


BIOFUELS. Let’s face it, this was probably the biggest issue for the audience and the main reason for holding the summit in the first place. It served to get Walker and Bush on the record in support of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and Perry softened his position.

Rastetter, a long-time ethanol industry leader, didn’t ask the candidates to commit to setting the annual biofuel usage targets at certain levels. That would have been unrealistic. But he did press them to say whether the RFS was needed to provide “market access” to the industry for its increased production. The magic word turned out to be “certainty.” Bush and Walker both said the industry needed it.

The bottom line: Most of the candidates expressed backing for the RFS. Perry, who as governor appealed for waivers of the RFS, told Rastetter he was just doing what was best for his state at the time. He went on to suggest that it’s too soon to remove the RFS when there are still subsidies and incentives for other forms of energy, but he also said that renewable energy policy ought to be left to the states. Perry was probably doing his best to make a flip-flop not look like one. The outlier: Cruz wouldn’t budge from his opposition to the RFS and used his stance to burnish his credentials as a candidate who would stand on principle. If oil companies are really discouraging stations to sell more ethanol, the industry should bring an anti-trust case, Cruz said.

IMMIGRATION. Farmers nationwide can be grateful that Rastetter put this issue on the agenda, and then pressed every man on the stage to lay out his position. The RFS is largely a regional issue. Immigration is not. If Rastetter’s questioning accomplished nothing else, dozens of journalists were forced to look up “H-2A” and educate themselves on the agricultural guestworker program. They now know what it is.

The bottom line: There was strong agreement that H-2A needs to be overhauled and expanded. “No one says it works. We need an ag-worker program that works,” said Santorum. The question is how to get Congress to change it. Democrats won’t support an expanded H-2A unless undocumented workers now in the country are legalized. Bush has a problem with the GOP conservative base on immigration, and he didn’t help his standing by insisting that there should be a path to legal status for people who are now in the country illegally. Walker, Cruz and others ruled that out. The outliers: Bush and Graham, who was part of the Senate’s gang of eight who negotiated a compromise immigration reform bill in the last Congress.

TRADE. Most of the potential candidates support giving the president Trade Promotion Authority with the notable exception of Graham, who has sided with Democrats in demanding that trade deals be required to address currency manipulation. Cruz’s emphatic endorsement for both TPA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership was notable, given that he’s a Tea Party favorite. “Opening up overseas markets expands the ability of our farmers and ranchers, our manufacturers, to continue to do well,” Cruz said. None of the potential candidates would support President Obama’s proposal to end the trade embargo on Cuba. The only question was which man could come up with the most colorful way to say so.

The bottom line: TPA supporters have to hope Cruz will help win over GOP conservatives in the House. The answers to the Cuba question show how tough it will be for farmers to convince Congress to ease restrictions on trade to Cuba. The answers also suggest that at least some of these men are looking beyond Iowa to one of the biggest prizes in the primary season and general election, Bush’s home state of Florida. No Republican can probably win the White House without Florida. There’s also skepticism about Cuba policy among GOP conservative base. The outlier:  Graham. Since a TPA bill is unlikely to include a currency provision, he seems likely to oppose it.

BIOTECHNOLOGY. Worries are growing among farmers, food makers and biotech companies that states are going to enact GMO labeling laws that will ultimately harder to commercialize and market genetically engineered crops. This is an issue that can cut across party lines, and candidates would probably just as soon stay away from the issue, lest they alienate some potential voters. Former House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., has said he’s got constituents opposed to GMOs from both parties. Still, Rastetter got the men to go on the record as to whether mandatory GMO labeling was warranted or not.

The bottom line: Rastetter’s interviewees not only didn’t believe in mandatory labeling, several made the case that it would be a way to scare consumers away from biotechnology. That’s just the answer the biotech industry wanted to hear. Some of the men also used the chance to promote the technology, dropping the name of Iowa icon Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was a biotech backer. “We need to do a better job of explaining to people that it’s safe,” Perry said. Santorum went so far as to call for blocking state labeling laws. ”We have to pre-empt the states from going off and requiring the food companies to have 50 different labeling requirements,” he said. Outliers: None

The potential candidates also were asked to address other issues:

REGULATIONS. Rastetter gave some of the men a chance to talk about their approach to environmental regulations by framing it as a question of whether public-private partnerships can work to address environmental issues. EPA’s proposed rule to re-define the “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act came up frequently. He occasionally brought up the issue of greenhouse gas emissions.

For a New Jersey governor, Christie had a surprising command of farm-state issues, and he called the WOTUS rule “nothing more than a power grab.” He blamed EPA’s overreach on the agency’s former administrator, Lisa Jackson, a former New Jersey regulator.

Pataki is not a serious contender but he demonstrated a command of environmental issues that likely has something to do with the fact that he owns a small cattle operation.

Cruz said voluntary programs like the Conservation Reserve Program are the way to go.

Santorum pushed back on Rastetter’s question about using a voluntary approach to control carbon emissions. The former senator said he was “not particularly sold that the science is decided on this issue. … We have people saying we can’t really debate this anymore.”

FOOD STAMPS. Rastetter asked some of the candidates what should be done about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. Walker received one of the biggest applause lines of the day when he touted Wisconsin’s employment training requirement for abled-bodied adults without children. “We know there are jobs out there,” Walker said. That concept is going to be tested more broadly though a series of welfare-to-work pilot projects authorized by the farm bill.

Huckabee, who has a long interest in nutrition policy, had by far the most far-reaching ideas for overhauling SNAP. He called for reworking SNAP benefits to encourage recipients to buy more fruits and vegetables. Under Huckabee’s policy, a dollar of SNAP benefits could buy up to $1.25 worth of produce but only 85 cents worth of junk food. The idea is a non-starter in Congress because SNAP’s political base relies on food and beverage manufacturers who products would be penalized.

CROP INSURANCE. The Republicans enthusiastically endorsed the crop insurance program, but Rastetter didn’t ask them to rule out making any cuts in the program.  A GOP president theoretically could make the argument that tightening rules on prevented-planting benefits, or reducing subsidies for the harvest-price option, both proposals that President Obama has made, wouldn’t undermine the program.

Christie said crop insurance “provides the right kind of safety net. … Let’s face it if we don’t do that often times the government will step in anyway in the areas of disaster and it will be 100 percent on taxpayers.”


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