Travel back just two short months to a quintessential scene: it’s a farm so close to suburban sprawl you can practically see the retail developments from the gravel road. A large American flag hangs from the door of a big, white barn. Classic red tractors surround an area filled with folding chairs as music is piped in and volunteers in Amy for America T-shirts work the crowd with clipboards in hand.
This is LaVon and Craig Griffieon’s family farm in Ankeny and on this day it’s the site of Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s campaign event announcing her proposals for agriculture.
Polk County farmer Ray Meylor farms nearby. He stuck an Amy for America sticker on his Veterans in Agriculture T-shirt and said Klobuchar’s his candidate.
“I’m committed to Klobuchar because she understands conservation,” he said.
And indeed, as the Democratic presidential candidate worked her way point by point through her agriculture plan, conservation featured prominently.
“I’ve long supported farmer conservation efforts and farming practices that reduce soil erosion and improve our air and water quality,” she said. “Let’s build on the progress we’ve made by expanding initiatives like, our states like these initiatives very much, CRP, CSP and EQIP.”
She’s referring to the Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program, all part of the federal farm bill. The hundred or so people in the audience cheer.
“Only in Iowa is that an applause line,” Klobuchar deadpanned.
Coming from Minnesota, with farmers who grow many of the same crops as Iowa’s, Klobuchar’s pitch to the agriculture community seems obvious. She’s served on the agriculture committee and the export council and she’s worked together with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on changes to farm bankruptcy laws. She’s a big supporter of ethanol.
But she’s not the only Democrat courting Iowa’s rural and agriculture communities. The farm economy has been struggling for years but over the past 18 months or so certain Trump administration decisions have, in some people’s eyes, exacerbated the situation. And since Iowa voted twice for Barack Obama and then for Donald Trump, some Democrats think it’s ripe for another switch. Key to such a change, though, will be rural voters.
A trade war that has drastically reduce China’s imports of U.S. agricultural products, especially soybeans, a drawn-out process of getting a new trade deal approved for the three North American countries and, most recently, the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to exempt some small refineries from blending ethanol, which corn farmers see as a direct hit to their domestic market, all have Mitchellville farmer Michael Fritch wondering just where the president stands on support for agriculture.
“He's always said he supports the farmers and he knows that, frankly, we got him into office,” Fritch said, “And we're making that very well known right now with the election cycle coming up, that, you know, we do have some broken promises out here.”
Fritch has been willing to take some hits for the greater good. He says farming often has to. So he’s weathered the Chinese tariffs, and he blames Democrats for the holdup on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). But the refinery waivers felt like a final blow.
“We’re tired of being pawns now,” he said.
Fritch voted for Trump but isn’t sure who he’ll support in 2020. Right now he’s listening to whatever the candidates—mostly Democrats—have to say about agriculture. He says he’ll sit down with a list before Election Day and rank every candidate to see whose offer looks best for his business and his family, with ag policy at the top of a priority list that also includes healthcare.
To be sure, Trump maintains widespread support in rural areas. But some counties that chose him may not stay red in 2020.
Ann Oberhauser, Daniel Krier and Abdi Kusow, three Iowa State University sociologists, combed through economic, demographic and geographic data about the counties that went from blue in 2012 to red in 2016 to see what set them apart from other Iowa counties.
“What came out to be highly correlated with these flipped counties was rurality, level of whiteness (or non-Hispanic white population) and education,” Oberhauser said.
That is, compared to other counties, the ones that flipped had fewer Hispanic voters, lower numbers of college degrees and were more rural. Now, Oberhauser and her colleagues are setting up focus groups in certain northwest, northeast and southeast Iowa counties to see whether those areas that switched to Trump might be leaning toward the Democrats come 2020.
Oberhauser said the implications could be great.
“The way that our electoral college is set up, it's those small towns in rural areas that have a pretty significant voice, and power, in terms of deciding some of the politics in our country,” she said.
Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttgieg, Kamala Harris and other candidates all have visited less urban areas of the state, they’ve presented plans to reduce consolidation of agribusiness or adjust the trade tactic to focus more on China’s misdeeds—in intellectual property theft, trade secrets and disadvantageous business practices—and lessen the burden on U.S. agriculture. But even as they pose with hay bales and talk about bringing high speed internet to rural communities, Scott Henry, a farmer near Nevada (who cannot get high-speed internet at his farm), said they could do more to actually talk with, and listen to, farmers.
“There are real answers in rural America, but you have to get out of a plane or get off of a paved road even sometimes to find them,” he said.
Henry voted for Trump and like Fritch, he’s frustrated with some of the results. But he also knows he wants a pro-business president whose tax policy will be beneficial to his multi-generational seed corn, corn and soybean farm, which soon will also include a hog operation he is starting with his brothers. He likes that Klobuchar came to an ethanol plant just down the road from his farm. He sees her as a candidate who could challenge Trump on rural and ag issues in a general election. If she gets there.
“I just worry about the divisiveness and the ideologues of the political culture that we're in, (that) a candidate like her that is taking up the flag for us, and rural America, will get chewed up and spit out before the primary season's even over,” he said.
It was a rainy September day and coupled with the freight trains that run through his part of Story County we found ourselves talking in my car in the lot of a Nevada city park.
Henry says at this stage a Democrat could earn some of the farm vote. But right now, given his doubts about the outcome of the primary season, he imagines come the general election he could be choosing the lesser of two evils.
“My concern for 2020 is that farmers don't have anybody on the ticket that represents us, not just did President Trump lose our support," he said.
Several major candidates want to tap that frustration and pull some voters to the blue side. On this day, Henry climbed back into his dark grey Ford F-150 Lariat pick-up truck and headed back to work.
Now, harvest is getting under way, and there’s no word yet from the White House on a deal to replace the ethanol demand reduced through the waivers and little sign of progress on the Chinese trade front.
Don’t be surprised if you start seeing photos of candidates in combines.
Follow Amy on Twitter: @AgAmyInAmes