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Uniting behind a family farm agenda

Hours before Iowa's Democratic Party drew a record crowd of 9,000 to its Jefferson-Jackson Day fundraising dinner in Des Moines Saturday, five Democratic candidates for President made their pitch to rural voters at a forum organized by National Farmers Union and Iowa Farmers Union.

The biggest differences were more in style than substance, as Senators Barack Obama, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and former Senator John Edwards spoke one-by-one to the crowd.

All five at the 2007 Food and Family Farm Presidential Summit support country of origin labeling. Most talked about their support for a ban on packer ownership of livestock. All support ramping up government mandates for ethanol and biofuels consumption. There was support for tough, lower payment limits. That has strong backing from Senator Chuck Grassley, the only prominent Republican to show up at the event which was open to all presidential candidates from both parties.

Many of the ideas the candidates pitched are already in the farm bill that Iowa's Democratic Senator, Tom Harkin, has shepherded through his Agriculture Committee only to see the bill bogged down in partisan politics on the Senate Floor.

Both the House and Senate farm bill plans include mandatory country of origin labeling, only the Senate bill bans packer ownership until 14 days before slaughter. And a Senate amendment to limit commodity program payments to $250,000 per couple, an effort pushed by Grassley and Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), is expected to come up first if the Senate debates the bill next week.

Harkin's work drew praise from candidate Chris Dodd, a Senator from Connecticut.

"What a tremendous job Tom Harkin does on behalf of farmers all across this great country of ours," Dodd told several hundred gathered at the Marriott Hotel.

Dodd said the farm bill was being held up by the Republicans, who don't want to give the Democrats credit for the bill.

But he said he thought the bill would pass the Senate, "my guess is before the week is over. I'm very confident it will get done."

Grassley sees that issue differently. He, too, would like to get the farm bill finished, he told Agriculture Online. But the farm bill is the last major piece of legislation at the end of this year. It represents the only chance for the minority party to bring issues up.

Like Dodd, Grassley believes that the Senate will start doing more than giving speeches about the farm bill and begin voting on amendments Tuesday. He's less optimistic about how fast the Senate will act. "I don’t know whether we'll be done by Thanksgiving," he told Agriculture Online.

Rumors were circulating at the Summit that the leaders in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were trying to work out a compromise on amendments to be considered with the farm bill. Grassley said he had not heard of any agreement being reached as of late Thursday, when he left Washington.

When asked about the progress of the farm bill debate after his speech, Joe Biden told Agriculture Online that he didn't know, either. "I don't know what McConnell's up to," he said.

The candidates saved their harshest criticism of each other for the Jefferson Jackson Day dinner. Instead, each tried to show how close they are to many of the policies long advocated by Farmers Union, an ag group whose members lean toward Democratic candidates.

Biden, Dodd and Edwards took the most questions from the audience. Clinton, who arrived 20 minutes late towards the end of the day-long session took no questions. Only Dodd and Edwards held press conferences.

Lagging in the polls behind front runners Clinton, Obama and Edwards, Joe Biden seemed the most relaxed.

"I am one of the 800 candidates running for President of the United Sates of America and I admire your physical constitution for being here all day. I don't know what that says about your judgment," Biden joked.

Biden said he is very familiar with agricultural issues, coming from Delaware, whose largest industry is agriculture and where some farms have been in the same family for 300 years.

Biden emphasized his experience in foreign policy. He's the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Farmers understand better than most business owners how foreign policy affects the economy, he said.

When President George W. Bush threatens Iran and talks about World War III, it "adds a security premium to the price we pay for oil," Biden said. Some analysts estimate that security premium makes up 25% to 30% of the cost of a barrel of oil. "Who will pay the biggest price for oil hitting $100 a barrel? You."

Biden supports renewable fuels, more stations selling E-85 and local ownership of biofuel production. But that industry, too, may be facing more concentration. "Watch the next step. Hang on. Watch what's coming," he said.

Dodd also promoted his long experience in the Senate and the need for energy independence.

"We borrow a billion dollars a day to bring in foreign oil. I want that to stop," Dodd said.

Dodd said he favors a corporate carbon tax to create a $50 billion trust fund that would invest in renewable energy and technology.

"Iowa could be to renewable energy what Texas has been to oil," he said.

Both Edwards and Obama repeated their opposition to control of farm policy by large agribusinesses. Both have an interest in controlling environmental problems caused by some large feedlots and hog operations, referred to as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in clean water regulations.

Obama said that his voting record shows that "unlike other candidates who have changed positions on CAFOs" he has always stood for environmental responsibility and local control. Obama favors a lower spending limit for a conservation program used by CAFOs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Edwards repeated his call for a "moratorium on CAFOs" Saturday but didn't say how he would do that. After his press conference he shared more details of his thoughts on ways to limit CAFOs when asked by Agriculture Online.

There are two ways, he said. The first would be through amendments to the Clean Water Act. The second would be to have the Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces the Act, not issue any more permits for CAFOs. "The first [Amendments] would be preferable," Edwards said.

Like other candidates, Clinton said she supports commodity payments targeted to family farmers, higher mandates for biofuels use, and immediate implementation of country of origin labeling.

"We Democrats are going to do everything we can to support family farmers," she said.

Clinton seemed to be running against an unpopular President Bush more than against any of the Republican presidential front runners.

Bush has cut conservation funds, blocked attempts to pass disaster legislation and short-changed spending on education and health, she said.

"Clearing brush on his ranch is about the only successful rural agenda this president has implemented over the last seven years," Clinton said.

There were no clear winners among the Democrats at Saturday's Farmers Union event. Some Iowa Farmers Union leaders are already working on their own for Edwards or Obama. Edwards, who spoke after lunch, got the most applause—partly because Iowa union members who support him bought tickets to the lunch. But several farmers who came from neighboring states like Minnesota told Agriculture Online they’re still undecided.

"I keep flip-flopping," joked Karen Perish, who is from a dairy farm in Browerville, Minnesota. "I haven't made my mind up yet." She said she was impressed by Biden and Edwards.

The most important issues to her, she said, are health care, education and fair trade. Current trade rules have hurt farmers, she believes. Even though milk prices have recently increased, for the past decade they stayed at an average of about $13.50 per hundredweight while dairy farmers' costs climbed. That's why many dairy farmers have left the business.

"I'd like to know anybody who would work as hard as we do for $13.50," she said.

Hours before Iowa's Democratic Party drew a record crowd of 9,000 to its Jefferson-Jackson Day fundraising dinner in Des Moines Saturday, five Democratic candidates for President made their pitch to rural voters at a forum organized by National Farmers Union and Iowa Farmers Union.

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