Agriculture, despite its critical importance to the U.S. economy, usually takes a back seat in the presidential election to more glamorous issues such as fighting terrorism, Obamacare, Hillary’s emails, and Donald Trump’s hair.
But few (if any) domestic issues affect Americans’ day-to-day life to the same degree. Agriculture policy affects the dairy, produce, grains, and meat we buy at the grocery store. It affects the prices of those goods, the means by which they make their way from field or barn to your dinner table, and the regulations that meet them along each step of the journey. It affects our pocketbooks, our health, the landscape of our country—and even, one could argue, our national security.
So even if tonight’s presidential debaters ignore farming, it’s important that we take a careful look at what they have (or have not) said about agriculture policy.
Donald Trump Supports Big Ag, Not the Average Farmer
During primary season, Trump’s only stated positions on farming put him directly in the pocket of Big Ag—as Tim Carney put it over at the Washington Examiner, “[Trump] confuses pro-business corporatism with pro-market free enterprise.” Carney noted that Trump attacked primary opponent Ted Cruz for opposing ethanol mandates and subsidies, while declaring his own support for the industry. “His full-throated support for the ethanol mandate puts no room between him and Hillary, who has never met a corporate handout she didn’t like,” said Carney.
Not much has changed since then: although Trump has said little about farming on the campaign trail, he recently released a list of agriculture advisors that, according to Modern Farmer, proffers “a who’s who of industrial agriculture advocates, including senators, governors, state ag commissioners, and agribusiness executives. It’s safe to say that the Trump ag team supports feedlots over farmers markets.”
At an August rally in Des Moines, Iowa, Trump did address the plight—and importance—of family farmers. “Almost 97 percent of farms in this country are family-owned and family-managed. It’s not only a great American tradition, but a vital component of America’s economic and national security,” he said. Trump said he plans to “lower the tax rate on family farms down to 15 percent, and to stop the double-taxation of family farms at death – helping to ensure that the family farm tradition in Iowa continues to thrive and flourish.”
He argued that Clinton “wants to shut down family farms just like she wants to shut down the mines and the steelworkers. She will do this not only through radical regulation, but also by raising taxes on family farms—and all businesses—to rates as high as nearly 50 percent. Adding to the pain, she will tax family farms again at death by as much as 45 percent.”
We do have problems with radical regulation in agriculture, but Trump has failed to pinpoint specific items he thinks should be deregulated. Instead, he focused on the taxation of private business—which could as easily be applied to the benefit of Big Ag as to cultivating small to midsize family farmers.
When Trump spoke of fighting the estate tax, he spoke of a tax that only applies to estates of $5.45 million or more. In other words, it’s a tax that burdens a tiny fraction of the farming community—about 20 farms in all, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. While there’s definitely a libertarian argument to be made for abolishing the death tax, it has very little to do with helping out the average American farmer.
It seems unlikely, then, that Trump is calling for the sort of deregulation that might advance the cause of America’s average family farmers, as opposed to its larger, corporatized producers. As PolitiFact noted in a piece on Trump’s statements:
The Trump campaign is talking about Clinton’s proposal to raise the tax rate for taxpayers who have an adjusted gross income of more than $5 million. … That would not affect the vast majority of people who own small businesses or family farms. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, of the 2.1 million farms in the country in 2012, only 0.3 percent of family farms were large enough to have gross cash income of $5 million or more. The vast majority — 88 percent — reported less than $350,000 in income.
Roberton Williams, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, said, ‘Very few people make enough to be affected by the surtax and only a tiny fraction, if any, are traditional family farmers.’
Clinton’s Platform Focuses on Handouts, Not Deregulation
That said, Hillary Clinton’s ag policy focuses on a swath of government spending that would do more to burden taxpayers than bring lasting change to the farming community.
In her “Plan For A Vibrant Rural America,” Clinton promises to “build a strong local and regional food system by doubling funding for the Farmers Market Promotion Program and the Local Food Promotion Program to expand food hubs, farmers markets, SNAP recipients’ access to fresh food, and to encourage direct sales to local schools, hospitals, retailers and wholesalers” (emphasis added). She also plans to double funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development program and to “strengthen” USDA grant programs.
Clinton also promises to “make progress in targeting federal resources in commodity payment, crop insurance, and disaster assistance programs to support family operations that truly need them in challenging times, like when weather-related disasters devastate whole areas of the country.” This could be a promising indication that Clinton might fight the worst forms of crony capitalism in our crop insurance programs, such as the HPO (Harvest Price Option) crop insurance policy.
But it could also mean that Clinton will support the status quo. Unfortunately, considering her track record of support for the farm bill and her ties to Tom Vilsack (the current secretary of Agriculture), that seems the more likely outcome. As Tom Philpott noted for Mother Jones,
The Clinton team aggressively floated Vilsack as a contender for vice president before settling on Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine for the post. But despite his getting passed over, there was a Vilsack angle—the campaign quickly named Paul, Vilsack’s longtime right-hand man, as Kaine’s chief of staff. Two Washington insiders who declined to be quoted directly have told me that Vilsack is and will likely remain Clinton’s top ag adviser, on everything from policy details to choosing the next USDA chief. That tells me that if Clinton prevails, the next administration will look a lot like the current one on ag policy.
In January, Nathaniel Johnson wrote for Grist that Clinton holds an “underinvestment theory” of farm failure, and focuses more on spending money than on reigning in cronyism. In contrast, Bernie Sanders adhered to the “‘unfairness theory’ of farm failure,” arguing that small and midsize farms “are being held down by unfair competition from foreign trade, big agribusiness, and the government subsidies that support the largest farmers.”
How Then Shall We Vote?
It’s difficult to know which candidate has a less harmful ag policy—in reality, they’ll function rather similarly. Both do little to fight the relationship between Big Ag and Big Government. Clinton wants to spend more money on farming initiatives, but that won’t help free up the relationship between small farming producers and their local communities. Trump’s agricultural advisors are likely to fight for big, industrialized farm producers—to the detriment of free markets and local food freedom.
Candidates like Rand Paul and Cruz brought some interesting agriculture policies to the table during their primary presidential runs (as did Sanders). Now that they’re no longer running for president, it’s worth watching what they (and their small-government counterparts in Congress) might seek to accomplish outside of the White House.
In the meantime, we can continue to support a different sort of ag policy in how we vote and what we buy at the local, grassroots level. No matter who’s in the White House, we can still buy our milk and butter from Farmer Joe.