WASHINGTON, July 13, 2016 - Conversations directly relating to agriculture at next week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland are expected to be much like the number of delegates with direct ties to farming and ranching: few and far between.
Agri-Pulse sifted through delegate lists for several farm states and found that much like the rest of the U.S., most of the delegates with the closest ties to agriculture are still a generation or so removed from the farm.
“Frankly, with (those connected to agriculture) now being about 2 percent of the population, we just have less of a voice in general,” Marty Seifert, a former Minnesota legislator who will attend his second GOP convention, said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. “There’s no doubt it’s concerning. I think the representation probably follows along with that.”
Seifert is a 14-year veteran of the Minnesota legislature who currently serves on the board of directors of two ethanol plants and is a part-time lobbyist, mainly on rural issues, during Minnesota’s legislative session. Like most other delegates who spoke with Agri-Pulse for this story, he grew up on a farm but is not currently an active farmer.
While farm and rural policy is unlikely to be a central theme of the convention, many topics relevant to agriculture could have their time in the spotlight. Ag issues will be discussed during debate over the party platform, but they don’t appear to be overly controversial. While a draft platform hadn’t been released as of Tuesday evening, a convention official said it will include sections endorsing domestic production, trade (but not “multi-lateral” agreements), as well as measures limiting protections for several animals under the Endangered Species Act.
Policies on trade, energy, infrastructure, and regulatory reform could all be discussed and would touch on key talking points for a number of ag groups.
Like Seifert, David FitzSimmons grew up on a farm before serving in the Minnesota state legislature. He is currently chief of staff for Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn. This will be his third convention – his first as a voting delegate – and he’s expecting agriculture to be brought up, but through tangential connections to wider issues.
“I think when we look at things a little broader, (agriculture) isn’t discussed that much. We might not be talking about commodity prices or things like that, it might not get to that level of detail, but when you zoom out, there is the discussion on things that are big drivers,” he said. “They might not be exclusive to ag, but they’re inclusive of ag.”
For example, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has spoken strongly against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but not necessarily against international trade. His opposition has mostly been pointed at lost manufacturing jobs and increased imports, without discussing how ag might be able to benefit from enhanced trade or the agreement as a whole.
Trade is an issue where Trump and presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton aren’t horribly far apart, and Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who will be a delegate to the convention, says that if the two candidates are going to hold firm and aren’t talked into changing their minds by their respective parties, then expectations need to be shifted to a new kind of trade environment.
“I think that the positions that each of the candidates have taken that are against the broader trade agreements is going to make it difficult if not impossible to do anything except bilateral trade agreements,” King said. “If that’s our lot, then we should do that as good as we can.”
Trump’s stance on immigration has raised eyebrows in a number of circles, including agriculture. His pledge to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and other hardline stances are causing some to wonder if the industries that rely on migrant workers for labor, including agriculture, would be able to find a sufficient work force. But Eric Opiela, a Texas beef producer who will be attending his third straight convention as a delegate, says that immigration can – and should – start with fixing border security.
“There are some people that are concerned from a labor perspective, but let’s get the border under control first so we can then talk about how we’re going to get our labor visa system reformed,” Opiela told Agri-Pulse. “It’s two different things, and they’re not mutually exclusive.
“Why can’t you secure the border and fix the agricultural visa system?” he continued. “Why would you have to do one and not the other? If you don’t secure the border, how are you going to apply for legal visas when they can just as easily get across illegally and work in construction in the cities making a heck of a lot more money?”
And while no one is expecting to use the convention as an opportunity to hammer down the official stance of the Republican Party on the next farm bill or other complex ag policy points, Clare Carlson, a former USDA employee who now works for the State of North Dakota, says he hopes to see Trump begin to gather some solid staffers to help agricultural voters know where the campaign stands.
“What I would hope for is that there’s a general recognition that the Trump campaign needs to find people with ag expertise to get involved in it to develop their policies,” Carlson, who will be attending his third consecutive convention, told Agri-Pulse.
Carlson added that while the role of delegates at recent conventions is limited, as the candidate has been chosen and the platform has largely been set, he still sees the party conventions as a way for the politically inclined to play a role in the election process.
“While conventions have gotten to be more of an ordination of the candidate,” he said, “(delegates) are still interested in being a part of history.”
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