Iowa Ag Summit put the spotlight on farm policy issues

Iowa Ag Summit put the spotlight on farm policy issues

Potential presidential candidates were grilled on RFS mandate, GMO labeling, immigration, water quality, biotech and other topics.

By Lissandra Villa

Editor's Note: Lissandra Villa is an Iowa State University student majoring in journalism and political science.

Potential candidates for U.S. president are beginning to show their hands. As usual, they are first being put through the rounds in Iowa—in preparation for the first-in-the nation Iowa Caucuses to be held early next year. This time, early in the selection process, the presidential hopefuls had to walk across a new tightrope: The 2015 Iowa Agriculture Summit. 

AG SUMMIT: Iowa agribusinessman Bruce Rastetter (right) hosted the 2015 Iowa Ag Summit at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on March 7. He interviewed 9 high-profile potential presidential candidates each for 20 minutes onstage.

Iowans arrived bright and early at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines on Saturday, March 7 to test potential candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. The nonpartisan event was hosted by Bruce Rastetter, an Iowa agribusiness leader and CEO of Summit Group. He gave each participant the opportunity to answer 20 minutes of questions onstage. There were nine potential candidates, all Republicans, who showed up and were interviewed.

In his brief introduction, Rastetter encouraged participants not to "filibuster" the questions. One of the goals of this new, one-of-a-kind summit was to produce better-educated candidates on agricultural issues, he said. The potential presidential candidates had to do their homework on the industry's issues in order to produce answers that would satisfy the experts on agriculture: Iowans.

Opportunity to find out where potential candidates stand
Despite invitations sent to high-profile Democrats considered to be potential presidential candidates like former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, the lineup of speakers at the 2015 Iowa Ag Summit consisted of all Republicans, with the exception of former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, a Democrat. Judge is not a presidential candidate but was one of the speakers on the program.

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Others on the program who spoke but who are not considered to be potential presidential candidates in 2016 included both of Iowa's U.S. Senators—Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst—and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. Iowa Congressmen Steve King, David Young and Rod Blum spoke, as did Steven Leath, president of Iowa State University.

Nine potential presidential candidates interviewed
The nine potential 2016 presidential candidates who were interviewed and answered questions included former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former New York Gov. George Pataki. Current governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey were also interviewed as was former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and current Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

The program catered to a largely conservative audience. Toward the end of Sen. Lindsey Graham's interview, he asked if any Democrats were present in the audience. Only one man raised his hand. Earlier in the day, the speeches by Branstad and Christie had both been interrupted by hecklers.

Seating capacity was set at 1,000 and more than 250 people registered for media credentials, said Eric Woolson of The Concept Works, throwing the summit into the national spotlight. 

Crowd wanted to know policy stances, even unpopular ones
Perhaps more important than to entice the rest of the nation to vote for a candidate, was first wooing the locals. The event gave Iowans the opportunity to apply the litmus test to potential candidates on issues specific to agriculture such as the Renewable Fuel Standard, immigration, genetically modified organisms, energy and food safety.

"I want to hear what these people have to say specifically about agriculture," said Helen Sinclair of Melrose, Iowa. Sinclair, whose family farms, said she would wait to make a decision down the road on the candidates. She said she attended the event for information-gathering purposes.

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Other attendees were drawn to the event for other reasons. "I'm a huge ag policy nerd," said Aaron Price of West Des Moines, who grew up on a farm and said he sees agriculture as a key issue in elections. Price noted some of the issues raised through the interviews, such as the rural and urban divide, would not be heard in any other context. 

"You can tell that some of the potential candidates are much more articulate on the nuances of agriculture," said Andrea Basche, a graduate student at Iowa State University in agronomy.

Iowa summit helped educate potential candidates on ag policy
The event was sponsored at gold, silver and bronze levels. The Bruce L. Rastetter Foundation, Summit Group, MidAmerican Energy and America's Renewable Future were the four gold sponsors.

While the crowd warmly received the potential candidates, some of the people in the audience at the end of the day felt not much new had been said. One message from the summit, however, came across loud and clear. It was that Iowans –or, at least Rastetter, plan on making support for agriculture the key to gaining Iowa's support for candidates seeking to run for the nation's highest elected office.

Lissandra Villa is a journalism student at Iowa State University

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