Ray Gaesser
Ray Gaesser

May 30, 2018

DENISON

An experience-rich field of five Republicans and one Democrat running for Iowa secretary of agriculture weaved through a raft of substantive farm issues, agreeing on much (the importance of trade and expansion of E15), in a two-hour Iowa Corn Growers forum in Denison last week.

“It’s an exciting time to be in agriculture, that’s why there are six people running,” said Republican Chad Ingels, a fourth-generation Fayette County farmer who serves on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission.

Republican Ray Gaesser, a Corning farmer and former president of the American Soybean Association, put it another way, “I think it’s the highest position on earth, to be secretary of Iowa agriculture.”

The candidates fielded questions in the Harrison/Crawford County Corn Growers forum at Denison’s Boulders Conference Center on the western side of that city.

Republican Craig Lang, a longtime leader in the Iowa Farm Bureau who has served on the Iowa Board of Regents, said the No. 1 issue is profitability on the farm.

“When farmers do well, Iowa excels,” Lang said, noting that commodity prices are depressing farm income again this year.

Lang, of Brooklyn, is calling for a doubling of beef production in Iowa. He’s also backing a plan to decentralize state government, moving many positions from Des Moines to rural areas.

“I think that’s a very good idea,” Lang said.

State Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, chairman of the Iowa Senate Agriculture Committee, said he has legislative experience to bring to the secretary’s office. He helped write the state’s water-quality bill — and referenced his experience as a farmer in the tough times of Iowa agriculture.

“Boy, did I get an education in farm finance you can’t buy,” said Zumbach, who noted that he started farming in 1979.

Democrat Tim Gannon, a Mingo native, who farms with his dad in Jasper County, stressed the need to educate urban and suburban Iowans about the importance of agriculture. He said the state will suffer if larger cities grow without boosting small towns.

“I’m talking a lot about what we can do to put more money in the farmer’s pocket,” Gannon said.

From 2009 to 2017, Gannon worked for former Iowa Gov. and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in various positions.

“Iowans have to get together and speak with one voice,” Gannon said.

Republican Sectetary of Agriculture Mike Naig of Des Moines, who grew up on a northwest Iowa farm and was appointed ag secretary in March, notes he has been deputy ag secretary since 2013.

Naig said he is “laser-focused” on water quality.

“We’ve got to do the right things from a natural-resources standpoint,” Naig said.

Naig, who has been on the forefront in battling for the Renewable Fuel Standard, now under threat from Texas oil forces and certain Republicans, said year-round availability of E15 would boost Iowa farms.

As it stands, retailers can’t offer E15 during summer driving months.

“It makes no sense we don’t have year-round E15,” Ingels said.

President Donald Trump has supported year-round E15 sales — and the ag secretary candidates called on the president and his Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Pruitt to deliver on that, and other measures for renewable fuels.

“I think time is running out for Mr. Pruitt to act before he needs to get out,” Naig said.

Added Zumbach, “Pruitt, he needs to take off his Big Oil hat and put on one that says ‘U.S.A.’”

Lang, who recalled Trump’s campaign promises on protecting the Renewable Fuel Standard, said the president should also make good on his comment about purchasing land in Iowa.

“I suggest he buy a big corn farm and look at what it does,” Lang said, adding that Trump, in that case, would see the benefits of the RFS up-close and personal.

Lang had strong words for Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general.

“I don’t trust Scott Pruitt,” Lang said. “I still believe the right thing was to fire him.”

Gaesser said it is essential that Iowa ag interests use legislative and political leverage on the RFS. Taking on oil companies in the courtrooms would be a losing proposition, he said.

“We can’t out-litigate them,” Gaesser said. “They’ll break us all.”

The candidates expressed strong support for trade.

Gaesser, who has extensive global travel on his resume, said 20 percent of Iowa ag income comes from trade.

Gannon said American farmers already have lost market share to Brazil because of wrestling over the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Gannon said that if backlash to Trump tariffs hit ag sectors hard, the federal government should aggressively pursue new markets on behalf of farmers.

Ingels suggested Iowa work to open up India to more of the state’s products.

Ingels also offered the strongest support for Trump’s challenging of China on trade, saying issues with intellectual property protection and other concerns are worth a fight that may pose challenges to agriculture.

It may be a little messy, but I think it’s the right thing to do in the long run,” Ingels said.