The Future of Iowa: Rural Iowans Hoping for Change

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IOWA — The plights of 2020 are not isolated challenges for Iowa farmers; the past three years brought a slew of obstacles — between trade tensions with China to climate-related disasters — farmers lost key buyers and crops, and have been forced into bankruptcy. 

Randy Miller, a soybean and corn farmer in Lacona, said that 30 years in the industry taught him to be optimistic, but hope is not always enough.

“It’s hard to be growing a crop that you can’t lock in a profit on with the uncertainty of not knowing whether there’s a government payment coming or not,” he said.

The Trump Administration has broken records with billions in federal aid in response, to help farmers make ends meet in the short term. But for another Lacona farmer, Matt Russell, the payments fail to address long-term issues.

Both Russell and Miller note that the typical farmer demeanour is not fond of “handouts.”

“We’re tired of the bailouts and we’re tired of the failing,” Russell said.

He acknowledges that without the subsidies, Iowa farmers would likely be seeing an economic decline worse than the farm crisis in the 1980s, but does not think this approach is sustainable.

“Right now we’re just like in a holding pattern, and we’re just pouring money to kind of keep everybody afloat,” Russell said. “And we’re not seeing a vision where farmers are partnering to change the systems so that we’re solving problems and being more resilient. And to me that’s the real crisis.”

Direct farm payments have climbed each year of Trump’s presidency, from $11.5 billion in 2017 to more than $32 billion this year, according to USDA data.

The spending increase really kicked off mid-2018, following the president’s trade war. The higher tariffs hurt agricultural exports and commodity prices, like for Miller’s soybeans. Farm sales to China plummeted from $19.5 billion in 2017 to just $9 billion in 2018. 

“Would you wanna go work for six months to a year for nothing? It’s very frustrating to know what you’re doing could end up as a loss,” he said. “We wanna raise a product and sell it, we don’t wanna raise a product that has no market and get a payment from the government.”

U.S. agricultural exports to China climbed back up to $13.8 billion in 2019, but with added losses from historic flooding in Iowa and now the pandemic, direct payments to farmers have remained on the rise.

In an election year, Russell — a Democrat — predicts rural Iowans and farmers will see a long-term vision in the Biden-Harris ticket that will speak to the issues they are facing now. 

“They [Democrats] really have a vision of where rural America farmers are,” Russell said. “And are willing to invest in us to be part of that solution, and not just throwing money at us to kind of keep us afloat.”

He specifically hopes farmers will have a change of heart on one of the most visible issues of climate change, which has rocked the state through severe flooding, and most recently, the August derecho.

“We have to think about our farms and provide the ecological services that the world needs,” Russell said. “The Democrats across the board are saying we need to pay farmers for providing this essential service, and the Trump administration is still, you know, denying climate change.”

Biden has sought to appeal to many of these issues Russell said are top of mind — promising to address climate change, support ethanol and new trade agenda. The former vice president rolled out his plan for rural America in September.

But recent polling suggests Trump will likely win over the rural population again. A September poll shows roughly 75 percent of farmers and ranchers plan to vote for the president in November. In 2016, Trump overwhelmingly won Iowa, carrying 96 of its 99 counties. 

Miller is one of those voters Trump is hoping will help him win Iowa again. He prefered not to disclose who he will cast his vote for, but acknowledged he has benefited from several of the Trump administration policies.

“China’s come back to the table and bought quite a bit of product in the last three weeks, so that’s helped,” Miller said. “USMCA went into effect in July. They’re still working on free trade agreements with Japan, the European Union. So it’s better.”

Representing the more quintessential independent Iowa voter, he said his vote will not be cast based on party, but policy.

“And this has gone on for more than four years. Both parties are working for farmers, so it’s a matter of the issues that are affecting us today,” he said.

While both Russell and Miller differ on who they think has the best approach to their concerns, they — like most voters — just want someone who will leave them better off than they were before.

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