Recent Articles About Farm Bill

Over the last few months, most of the presidential candidates have found their way to Bill Couser’s farm in Nevada, Iowa, where he raises more than 5,000 head of cattle, and grows corn and soybeans. Couser says he’s played host to all the Republicans vying for the Oval Office this cycle in the conference room he built at his feedlot specifically for the parade of presidential candidates.

“Carly Fiorina—I was with her yesterday,” Couser told Civil Eats. “I sat with Trump for a couple hours last week.”

But unlike in the lead-up to past Iowa Caususes, when Ben Carson or Ted Cruz arrive at the Couser farm, the candidates’ ears aren’t being bent on food production, land access, or even a specific wishlist for the next Farm Bill. When he’s with the candidates, Couser grills them on ethanol, or fuel made from corn byproduct.

As a co-chair of advocacy group America’s Renewable Future and a corn grower, Couser wants to make candidates understand what ethanol means to farmers. He has made it his mission to educate each candidate on why they should support and strengthen the Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)—which requires that transportation fuel sold in the U.S. contain a certain percentage of “renewable” fuel—usually ethanol.

“We want to make sure that stays intact and that we build on this new energy. As a farmer, that’s my safety net now. It’s a win-win for ag and a win-win for small communities,” he says. And he’s not alone. According to a recent poll, more than three out of four likely Iowa caucus-goers support the 2007 requirement.

Although many of the voters in next week’s caucus will be farmers and farmworkers, food rarely comes up in the campaigns in Iowa these days, says Dr. Steffen Schmidt, Iowa State professor of political science. Schmidt has closely observed every Iowa caucus since 1970, and he says even Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who has arguably the most fleshed-out and progressive positions on food productions and farms, has not made the subject a regular part of his Iowa stump speech.

Sanders has, at times, hedged when asked about his positions, too. When asked by a Carroll Daily Times Herald reporter last summer whether his opposition of all things big (banks, money) extends to farms, he responded, “Good question, I just don’t know,” before continuing, “I’m not a great fan of factory farming, I should tell you that.”

Schmidt remembers when non-fuel-based agriculture was among the top four or five issues during the caucus. These days, though, he says candidates may bring up an issue specific to food production, such as federal crop subsidies, about once a decade, when the Farm Bill is up for reauthorization.

“Other than that, what comes up mostly nowadays is ethanol and renewable fuels,” says Schmidt, who is also a neighbor of Couser’s.

One reason traditional agricultural issues have moved to the background in Iowa politics is that fewer Iowans than ever are farming—just 66,000 of 3.1 million people—resulting in fewer voters considering agriculture when they vote.

“It’s simple math,” Matt Strawn, the former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, told the Kansas City Star. “You’re seeing a generational shift. You hear fewer farm voices as more and more family farms have gone away.”

But even among the remaining farm voices, agriculture is seemingly off voters’ radar this election cycle—despite a quarter of Iowans being directly connected to farms and farming. Iowa State pollsters asked 1,074 likely caucus-goers about the “most important problems facing the country today,” and agriculture did not make the final list of 16.

“A Republican candidate is better off talking about abortion and gay marriage than agriculture,” Schmidt says. “And a Democrat is better off talking about income inequality and Black Lives Matter and all that.”

In one recent exception, Sanders released an ad online featuring a third-generation farm couple speaking out against a proposed crude oil pipeline that would cut diagonally across the state, threatening to take significant amounts of farmland, some by eminent domain. But even in that case, the ad steered around addressing farming explicitly.

On the Republican side, voters’ preference for non-agriculture issues may explain why social conservative Senator Ted Cruz continues to do well in Iowa—where he is currently in second place, but has led at times—despite his publicly stated desire to phase out the Renewable Fuel Standard. Earlier this month, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad publicly denounced Cruz, citing his opposition to renewable energy and support from oil companies. Cruz and Senator Rand Paul are the only candidates from either party who oppose the RFS. Cruz and Paul represent a current GOP that is “anti-government” and “anti-spending,” says Schmidt, which may be another reason why this year’s candidates have not talked as much about food and farming. Fuel production is an easier lift for the current crop of Republican candidates.

“A lot of farm programs, food stamps, research—it’s big government,” he adds.

Couser insists that his concerns extend beyond energy interests, however, such as the recent attempt to restructure the dietary guidelines and the Des Moines’ lawsuit against rural counties for allegedly polluting the city’s water supply—issues he says he discussed with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently.

“It’s all very important to us,” he says. “We want to make sure we have a seat at the table and are not just on the menu.”

Separate from the interests of large-scale agriculture, chef and activist Kurt Michael Friese—who edits Edible Iowa River Valley—says he’d like to see candidates talking more about issues such as school lunch reform. And launched last fall, the Plate of the Union campaign is challenging presidential candidates to discuss solutions to problems like food access, diet-related illness, the treatment of food workers, and the impact of agriculture on the environment.

Then, during Monday’s Democratic Town Hall, televised on CNN, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley answered a question from Iowa Farmers’ Union President Jana Linderman about how he would provide opportunities for young farmers and small family farms. O’Malley’s answer—he would use the Farm Bill to lower the barrier for young people who want to farm, pushing back against consolidation in agriculture—might have pleased sustainable farming advocates, but neither Sanders not Clinton was asked about farming.

That’s because in a state where corporatization and consolidation has dramatically cut into the number of smaller, family-run farms, sustainable agriculture advocates are generally outnumbered when candidates show up in Iowa. Friese remembers cornering then-Senator Barack Obama at a 2007 Earth Day rally in Iowa City and asking him what he would do to transform an industrialized food system. After indicating that he’d been moved by a recent Michael Pollan column in the New York Times, Obama followed with a sobering piece of advice: “If you want to do anything in Washington about [the food system], you’ve got to bring me 1 million people. That’s the only thing that will counteract the billions of lobbyist dollars.”

Back in Iowa, Bill Couser says he and many of his neighbors are tired of being bombarded by political ads, but glad that the candidates start their campaigns in farm country, and bring the media with them. Has he met the perfect Iowa candidate in this field?

Many of them are “very smart and understand most issues,” but “when [they] come to the Midwest and talk about ag,” he says, “they’re all just a little bit short.”

A version of this post previously appeared on Modern Farmer.

Earlier this week the USDA reached out to Modern Farmer asking if Secretary Tom Vilsack, the only member of President Obama’s cabinet that has lasted through both terms in office, could give us a call. He wanted to plug the $17.6 million in grant money that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently made available for organic farming research, as well as a few other things he’s been working on to support the local food movement, or what the USDA often refers to as the “farm-identity preserved” market. But we got to chat about a few other things, too, like Vilsack’s recent trip to Cuba and his views on the GMO labeling debate. Read more

When it comes to the disparities within the food system, the numbers are pretty stark. The 10 largest mega-corporations generate $450 million annually in food sales. These companies’ CEOs earn, on average, 12 times what their workers make. Of those food workers, women of color make less than half of the salaries of their male counterparts and are far more likely to need nutrition assistance than workers in other industries. Black farmers have lost 80 percent of their land since 1920, while large-scale and corporate farms make nearly half the agricultural sales—despite accounting for less than five percent of all farms. Read more

If you’ve ever driven through the middle of the country, where single crops dominate the landscape for miles, you may think that the bulk of our farms grow just a few foods: corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice. Now, it turns out, you were right.

A new study published last month in the journal PLOS ONE, shows that U.S. crop diversity is significantly lower today than it was 30 years ago. So while it’s been a commonly held belief that U.S. farms are moving toward monoculture, and away from crop diversity, now there’s solid evidence to support that claim. Read more

At New Orleans’ Recirculating Farms Coalition (RFC), vegetables grow in an intricate system of recirculating aquaculture systems and raised garden beds. Founded in 2009, the nonprofit organization trains urban farmers in both soil-based farming and fish farming—a combination that provides food for the local community.

Now, thanks to a federal grant, RFC has received $500,000 to create a more robust free training program for budding urban farmers, specifically targeting its outreach and support to new farmers in some of the most low-income and underserved communities in New Orleans: Central City, Algiers, New Orleans East, the Seventh Ward, and the Ninth Ward. Read more

After a recent national gathering, delegates discussed their emphatic opposition to federal firearm registration, argued against attempts to address climate change through cap and trade, and decried the so-called “war against Christmas.” Attendees went home with a “lobbyist bible” that defined marriage between a man and woman, called for national voter identification, and demanded the repeal of “Obamacare.” Read more

Update: On May 12, 2015, the Organic Trade Association moved forward to “begin steps to conduct a vote on and implement a research and promotion check-off program for the organic industry.” 


Imagine an ad campaign for organic food as ubiquitous as “Got Milk?,” “Pork. The Other White Meat,” and “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.” That’s the idea behind a proposed federal program that would collect money from organic producers and put it in a single pot for promotion and industry research for the whole organics sector. Read more

As comedian John Oliver said last week in his much-watched primer on net neutrality, “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” Big Ag has known this strategy for years and perhaps no one does it better than the meatpackers and poultry companies—companies like Tyson, Smithfield, and trade organizations like the American Meat Institute and the National Chicken Council. Read more

“This isn’t your father’s Farm Bill.” These were the optimistic words of Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, in a statement on her Web site Tuesday, after the Senate voted to finally pass a farm bill. The $1-trillion dollar, five-year bill had been in the works for over two years, prompting food and agriculture companies to spend $150 million in lobbying dollars.

And let’s face it, any movement in Congress feels long overdue and a little relieving these days, simply because it’s just so rare. But does this new bill really represent a radical departure from farm bills past? Not so much. Read more