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Leading Democratic candidates back payment caps and target CAFOs

On a sunny fall afternoon, The League of Rural Voters managed to draw about 200 people to the National Summit on Agriculture and Rural Life in Ames, Iowa, Saturday to hear presidential candidates share their ideas for improving life in the nation's small towns and farms.

The crowd heard Democrats Barack Obama and John Edwards and Republican John Cox, a Chicago businessman, share their ideas for improving rural economic growth, education and health care. Democrat Hillary Clinton also spoke and took question by a live internet connection from New York. The League had invited all candidates from both parties.

All three Democratic candidates favor putting more federal money in the rural economy and education, and plugged their universal health care plans as beneficial for small towns as well as the rest of the country.

"A lot of the problems rural America faces are ones that really span the country," Clinton said.

When it comes to specifics, farm bill commodity programs made a good target for all four candidates. The three Democrats favor capping payments at $250,000 per farm couple and Cox, who advocates replacing the income tax with a consumption tax, said he would do away with agricultural subsidies. "It hurts the small farm, it encourages overproduction and it causes rents to go up," Cox said. (Later in the day at the Republican Party's annual Reagan Dinner in Des Moines, Cox said he is withdrawing from the race).

The Democratic candidates also support country-of-origin labeling and a ban on packer ownership of livestock.

All of those issues could be resolved before a new president reaches the White House in 2009. The farm bill moving through Congress doesn't have a strong cap on payments. But Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin said last week that the full Senate is likely to add a $250,000 cap with an amendment to his committee's farm bill in the next week or two. After that, the Senate version has to be reconciled with a House farm bill before Congress votes out a farm bill before the end of the year.

Mandatory country-of-origin labeling is in both House and Senate farm bills and has a good chance of surviving in the final legislation sent to President George W. Bush later this year. The Senate bill includes a ban on long-term packer ownership of livestock, which is strongly opposed by meat packers and some cattle and hog commodity groups. That makes its future in the final farm bill more questionable.

Both Obama and Edwards have rural policies that include banning packer ownership.

"When I'm President, I'll have a department of agriculture, not simply a department of agribusiness," Obama said Saturday.

Edwards' policy says he wants a packer ban "to stop the spread of large corporate hog interests."

"I think we need a national moratorium on CAFOs," Edwards said Saturday, referring to the concentrated animal feeding operations which raise more than 40% of U.S. livestock. Obama and Clinton want better environmental regulation of CAFOs and Obama wants to lower the $450,000 limit on conservation program funds now used by CAFOs to manage livestock manure. (The Senate ag committee last week actually raised them from Harkin's proposed $240,000 cap to $450,000 with an amendment introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat).

Clinton said in response to several questions that she's a strong supporter of farm programs that will encourage more local production of food.

"I think there's going to be great demand for locally grown food in the country," she said. "People want to know where their food comes from."

Both Clinton and Obama praised Senator Harkin for his work on the farm bill.

Anyone looking for dramatic differences between the three Democrats on rural policy might have been disappointed. Clinton often had the longest, most detailed answers to questions from Ames and from groups of young people at two other sites with an internet connection -- Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California, and Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Obama's 14-page rural policy, developed after holding two rural summits in Iowa, was the thickest, most detailed handout from the three Democrats. All three candidates have posted their policies online:

The meeting's main sponsors were the League of Rural Voters and Main Street Project, both based in Minneapolis. The event was also promoted by several rural and farm groups, including American Corn Growers Association and the Iowa, Missouri and Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.

On a sunny fall afternoon, The League of Rural Voters managed to draw about 200 people to the National Summit on Agriculture and Rural Life in Ames, Iowa, Saturday to hear presidential candidates share their ideas for improving life in the nation's small towns and farms.

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