STORM LAKE, Iowa - Five Democratic presidential candidates attended the Heartland Forum Saturday afternoon to present their plans to support rural and agricultural America.
The forum was sponsored by HuffPost, Open Markets, the Storm Lake Times and the Iowa Farmers Union. Moderators were Storm Lake Times editor and Pulitzer Prize winner Art Cullen, HuffPost Washington Bureau Chief Amanda Terkel and HuffPost Senior Reporter Zach Carter. The candidates also fielded audience questions.
Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and one-time Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack prefaced the forum by outlining three reasons why the next U.S. president needs to “articulate a vision … specifically for rural America”: 1) rural America is critical for the future of the country, as it produces most of America’s food, impacts the clean water supply and enlists a disproportionate number of military service men and women; 2) a vision will inform policy priorities; and 3) an agricultural vision will exhibit the heart and soul of the candidate.Elizabeth Warren
“I believe in an America that works for everybody,” said Warren, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts. She said that rural America can feel increasing elitism in Washington and needs to be included in decision-making.
Warren wants to see more profit go to American family farmers, and she plans to accomplish this by enforcing antitrust laws and breaking up corporate monopolies.
Warren called for immediate disaster relief for rural areas, given the recent flooding that has destroyed farms throughout the Midwest.
She also pointed out the need rural areas have for housing and health care, barriers that stop young families from moving to farm communities.
“No foreign country should be able to purchase farmland in America,” Warren said, regarding foreign ownership of companies like JBS.
The audience asked what Warren would do to remove the barriers that stop young farmers from entering the industry - namely, land access and student loan debt.
“We’re crushing an entire generation of young people with student loan debt,” Warren said, noting that the burden is now $1.5 trillion. Recent graduates commonly feel pressure to move to urban areas, where they can make higher wages and manage their student loans better, rather than starting farms. She committed to refinancing student loans if elected president.Julián Castro
Castro, formerly U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary and an ex-mayor of San Antonio, Texas, said he has a vision of America as “the smartest, the healthiest, the fairest and the most prosperous nation on earth.”
Castro said that while all Americans have the same basic needs, they’re being met disproportionately. He called for investment in public schools, community hospitals, family farms, and clean air and water.
On the rising farmer suicide rate, Castro said he not only supports common-sense gun law reform, but he also believes America needs to stop the stigma surrounding suicidal thoughts and mental illness.
“We can have a secure border and also be compassionate and recognize the value of our immigrant communities,” Castro said.
The grandson of an immigrant, Castro noted that he has seen firsthand what immigrants can do for rural America. He intends to create a path to citizenship for current undocumented immigrants and also increase security at ports of entry to crack down on human and drug trafficking.
The audience expressed concern about federal agribusiness policies contributing to pollution and climate change. Castro proposed appointing EPA representatives who believe in climate change. He would also call for a budget sufficient to enforce the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act uniformly across the country.John Delaney
A former U.S. representative from Maryland, Delaney is concerned about rural health care, particularly for veterans. He pointed out the need for universal broadband and climate-resistant infrastructure throughout rural America, and supports antitrust ag policy and investment in family farms.
All of these elements are included in Delaney’s recent Heartland Fair Deal proposal.
“Unless you invest in people … nothing really happens,” Delaney said.
During his career in business, Delaney extended loans to local businesses and created jobs all across America.
Audience members wondered what Delaney would do to enable legal immigration in America - particularly to rural areas, which struggle to maintain a workforce. Delaney pledged to accomplish comprehensive immigration reform in his first 100 days in office if elected.
The audience also asked what Delaney would do to support children who attend rural schools.
“One of the greatest injustices in our society is actually how we fund public education in this country,” Delaney said, advocating for the federal government supporting schools in areas that have low property taxes revenues.
He believes pre-K and career/technical training should be publicly funded.
“We have to be supporting our public schools if we want to have a civilized, progressive, advancing society,” he said.
Delaney pointed out that in 2018, 80 percent of the nation’s venture capital went to 50 counties - that’s 1.6 percent of total counties that got 80 percent of the funding, while 80 percent of children live in a county with insufficient jobs.
“That’s not a country of opportunity,” he said. “That’s a country of birthright.”
Delaney wants to incentivize investment in rural areas to support local economies.Amy Klobuchar
Klobuchar, Minnesota’s senior U.S. senator, said one of the reasons she’s running for president is that “kids that grow up in rural America should be able to live in rural America.” Her plan includes strong safety nets, commodity caps, vaccine banks, incentives for beginning farmers, bolstered education, rural hospitals, universal broadband and antitrust policy.
“(Farming is not just earning a living,” she said. “It’s your whole life.”
“This rural agenda has to include understanding the people who make this agricultural system run,” Klobuchar continued. To her, that means investing in rural mental health and increasing suicide prevention efforts for farmers.
Klobuchar also said she supports free community college, which would create more opportunities for young people to get trained for rural jobs.
“There are many paths to success in the United States of America,” she said.
The audience wanted to know what Klobuchar would do about vertical integration in the ag industry, pointing to last week’s announcement that Walmart and Costco have started producing their own milk and chickens.
She provided two possible solutions. First, she proposed there be new rules about how companies pay for things, including increased fees on mergers. Second, she said antitrust laws need to change.Tim Ryan
Ryan, a U.S. representative from Ohio has not officially announced a campaign, but he also laid out his vision for rural America. He said America needs to be “innovating our way out of” economic uncertainty given the loss of manufacturing jobs in rural areas since 2008.
Ryan called for incentivizing investment in rural areas, particularly using public-private partnerships. He said rural towns need to have amenities that will attract young people. Setting up that infrastructure will require investments.
Ryan is expected to announce in the next couple of weeks whether or not he plans to run.