THE DES MOINES REGISTER
BY: KIM NORVELL
All the declared candidates for president criticized the role of giant agribusinesses for advancing climate change, killing small towns and closing small- and medium-sized farms. Each pledged to reinforce or redesign America’s antitrust laws that would prevent large corporate mergers like Bayer-Monsanto’s, which gives the company control of a quarter of the world’s seeds and pesticides market.
“If we stifle competition through vertical integration or through monopolies like what we’re seeing, we’re not just going to bring up the prices for consumers, we’re going to stifle entrepreneurship,” Klobuchar said.
Earlier in the day, about 150 farmers from across the United States rallied for a Farmers Bill of Rights, a proposal that would give more power to small, independent farmers and less power to multinational corporations. They’re calling on Congress to pass a moratorium on corporate mergers.
Family farmers across Iowa have struggled, and even closed their operations, in the wake of ag mergers, which have created fewer buyers and less competition for independent farmers, said Chris Petersen, a specialty pig farmer from Clear Lake.
“They keep telling farmers ‘it’s going to be good for you,’ and quite frankly, I haven’t seen anything good about it yet,” he said. “The farmers are being turned into serfs on their own farms. They have all the responsibilities except getting a decent price.”
The 64-year-old has farmed near Clear Lake his whole life. At one point, Petersen raised 2,500 head of hog per year, farmed 400 acres of crops and bailed 8,000 squares of hay. But he declared bankruptcy after the market price of pork plummeted in the late 1990s.
Now he raises “a few hundred” Berkshire pigs that he sells to specialty stores and private buyers. He spends the rest of his time advocating for family farmers across the country as a board member of the Organization for Competitive Markets.
Petersen, a Democrat, said he’s pleased to see presidential candidates addressing rural issues this cycle.
“They’re talking more than ever about it this time around,” he said.
Here’s a look at other rural issues highlighted by candidates Saturday:
Access to mental health care
Suicide among agricultural workers is higher than any other occupation in the U.S., according to 2016 Census data. Meanwhile, eight rural Iowa hospitals have closed their psychiatric units in recent years.
Increasing investments in rural hospitals who can provide mental health care to farmers and ranchers could address that problem, most candidates said.
“We absolutely need a better conversation about how to prevent suicide by gun, but we also need to work on the stigma and the care that people can receive as they have suicidal thoughts and that goes to our health care policy and the investments that we make,” Castro said.
Most candidates also called for gun reform, including comprehensive background checks, prohibiting access to persons on the terrorist watch list and closing loopholes that allow firearms to be transferred by licensed dealers before background checks are completed.
“And I say that as someone who hunts,” Ryan said.
Rural population decline
According to the latest Census data, Iowa added nearly 100,000 residents between 2010 and 2017 — but two-thirds of the state’s rural counties lost population during that same period.
“I believe that kids that grow up in rural America should be able to live in rural America, and that means a strong safety net in our Farm Bill,” said Klobuchar, who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
She proposes making payments to small farmers through commodity caps, incentivizing beginning farmers and ranchers by creating a vaccine bank, strengthening rural hospitals and bringing broadband access to every home in America.
Warren said she would reduce the student loan debt burden so young people can choose to live in small towns instead of larger cities where wages are higher.
“We have to make investments in our people,” she said.
In the same vein, Castro said one way to encourage rural population growth is to be more welcoming to immigrants who want to live and work in the U.S. He pointed to the success of Storm Lake, where less than half of the city’s population is non-Hispanic white and 90 percent of the school district’s students are children of color.
Many of the city’s immigrants work in the local Tyson meatpacking plant, but also have opened cultural businesses like Mexican restaurants and ethnic grocery stores.
“I’m very proud of the story of Storm Lake in many ways. Y’all have shown other communities how it can be done,” Castro said. ” … Y’all have seen here in Storm Lake the value of the immigrant community.”
Delaney said he is pushing to pass immigration reform mirroring the 2013 Senate Immigration Bill that, among other things, would have created a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. It passed in the U.S. Senate, but stalled in the House.
“It was a perfect deal in many ways. We should put our shoulder right behind that and get it passed,” he said. “Our country would be much better off today in so many ways if that law had passed.”
Foreign ownership of farmland
As laid out in a proposal released last week, Warren reiterated Saturday that “the rest of the country should follow Iowa’s lead” and prohibit the purchase of farmland by foreign entities.
More than 27.3 million acres of farmland is owned by foreign investors, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found. Warren compared that to the size of Virginia.
“That not only creates a problem for farming communities and our food security, it creates a threat to the safety and the defense of the United States of America,” she said.