Busloads of farmers and other rural advocates from across the Midwest are rallying in Iowa to put their concerns at the front and center of the 2020 presidential race.
The Heartland Forum is happening March 30 at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, and it’s going to be epic. In the first and likely only forum dedicated to rural issues in the 2020 presidential race, The Storm Lake Times, the Iowa Farmer’s Union, the Open Markets Action Fund, and the Huffington Post will welcome the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for President.
Organizers tell me that so far, candidates Elizabeth Warren, John Delaney, Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan, and Julian Castro have confirmed they will attend. [Update: Tulsi Gabbard should be attending, as well.]
It’s going to be historic. The Iowa Farmers Union is organizing busloads of farmers to come from Wisconsin, Missouri, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. Native American and African American farm leaders will be attending. Iowa Democratic phenom J.D. Scholten — who came within a few percentage points of defeating controversial incumbent Republican Steve King by running primarily on ag issues — is organizing rallies prior to the forum with Family Farm Action, Farm Aid, and other groups, as are some of the presidential candidates attending.
Former Iowa Governor and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will introduce the candidates, and each will take the stage separately and answer questions from the audience, The Storm Lake Times, and the Huffington Post. Moderator will be the Pulitzer Prize winning editor of The Storm Lake Times, Art Cullen.
The symbolism of Cullen being on stage, and the fact it is being held in Storm Lake, is powerful. Cullen is one of the most significant rural voices to emerge since the Farm Crisis three decades ago, and Storm Lake is what the future of what rural America is going to look like if it is going to thrive — where immigrants from all over the world come together with native Iowans to build a prosperous community through hard work and respect for one another. Cullen documents the success story of his community in his remarkable book “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.” In Cullen’s America–like the America of our founding fathers–America is an idea–not a race.
Another important voice for rural America helping to organize the effort is Austin Frerick, director of special projects at the Open Markets Institute, and author of “To Revive Rural America, We Must Fix Our Broken Food System,” which appeared recently in The American Conservative. Frerick has been called a voice for younger environmental and advocates by Civil Eats, and The Intercept says that his focus on monopolies represents a new school of thought in the Democratic Party.
With Farm Aid being part of the rally before the forum, images of the 1980’s Farm Crisis come to mind. These are troubled times too, with low commodity prices and Trump’s trade wars hurting farm income.
Organizers tell me that some candidates balked at both the venue and the topic. They didn’t want to come to Storm Lake — it was seen as the middle of nowhere. They didn’t want to restrict the topic to rural issues — they wanted a broader discussion. These candidates were missing the point. If Democrats want to win rural America, they must come and visit farm and ranch country, and address topics that matter here. If they can’t, and don’t offer better solutions than Republicans they won’t win.
In my conversations with some campaigns’ staff, they tell me they won’t be at the event. That’s a mistake. They need to quit listening to their high-priced consultants, or get new ones. This is a must-attend event.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, although he has yet to declare he is running, has been invited. Interestingly, on March 9, Biden’s pollster, John Anzalone tweeted, “When I am not looking out the window on the @Amtrak Empire Builder (we are stopped waiting on freight trains to pass) I am reading Storm Lake by @cullen_art. It should be mandatory reading for very presidential candidate and staffer who wants to understand Iowa and its culture”
An Iowa Poll released that same night by The Des Moines Register shows Biden polling first among likely Democratic voters. Storm Lake would be the perfect place for Biden to announce he is running, and that he will fight for rural America. This is the perfect opportunity for the other candidates to do so as well. As alluring as early polls might be, based on history, they are irrelevant.
At Storm Lake, the playing field will be level, and the candidate who knows the price of corn, beans, wheat, and cotton, and what’s moving the markets will get our attention. And the candidate who turns our world upside down, by presenting a plan that rejects the current farm payment system that pits conservation efforts against production, that rewards farmers and ranchers for environmental services that saves our rural economies, our soil and water, and combats global warming for pennies a meal, that candidate will move the needle of public opinion.
by Robert Leonard, news director for the Iowa radio stations KNIA and KRLS.