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RFS, tariffs top issues at Dems rural issues town hall

Montana Gov. comes out to support Gannon, AG Miller in Colfax

COLFAX — Poppy’s Family Restaurant in Colfax, was a who’s who of Iowa Democratic party heavy hitters Friday, as Mingo native and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture candidate Tim Gannon was joined by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock in a town hall-style meeting on issues facing rural Iowa.

The small town restaurant was near capacity at the 10 a.m. event, filled with Gannon supporters and his family, as well as Democratic voters, farmers and Iowa Ag-industry professionals.

John Whitaker is a southeast Iowa farmer, former state representative and was appointed by President Obama in 2009, as the Iowa State Executive Director of USDA’s Farm Service Agency. At the Colfax town hall, Whitaker said farmers are worried whether the Trump Administration will keep its word in renewing and growing the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, which keeps Iowa ethanol industry viable.

Whitaker also told Bullock he’s concerned the recent threats by China and counter threats by the U.S. to slap large tariffs on imported goods will turn into a trade war and negatively affect Iowa commodity and Ag product markets overseas.

The biggest obstacle to rural American, Whitaker said, is uncertainty.

“They’re cutting the energy efficiency programs here in Iowa and nationally,” Whitaker said. “Those programs have been a good thing for rural America because we produce the renewable energy out here.”

Bullock took to the front of the dining room after speeches from Gannon and Miller and echoed Whitaker’s concern, worried the escalation in tariff talk and tough trade rhetoric could also affect the coming NAFTA renegotiation, rocking U.S. markets from soybeans and corn to pork exports.

“You don’t want to start a trade war by Twitter,” Bullock said. “... America is abdicating its responsibility to be the country that everybody looks to because we also will actually sit down, talk and work with people.”

The topic of environmentally sustainable farming practices was also raised at the town hall. Bullock called farmers some of the best environmentalists in the rural U.S. In an interview following the town hall, Gannon agreed with the governor. Gannon said the recent water quality bill signed into law this session by Gov. Kim Reynolds doesn’t go far enough to address Iowa’s water quality crisis. He said needed investment to provide conservation practices to millions of Iowa farm acres is in the billions of dollars instead of the $282 million the law redirects from other state programs.

Gannon proposes using the increasing farmer-led efforts of crop rotation, cover cropping and no-till field management in concert with research at Iowa State University and other Ag-science programs to do more to increase soil health.

“Using our family farm as an example, as long as we’ve taken care of the land it’s taken care of us. I think that’s the ethic most farmers carry day in and day out,” Gannon said. “... When you protect that soil health then you’re going to have follow on benefits to water quality.

The event was billed as a rural issues forum, but the discussion at Poppy’s also doubled as a listening post for the Democratic officials eager to regain rural and blue-collar voters and improve at the ballot box in the coming 2018 midterm elections.

U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack and Jasper County lawmakers Sen. Chaz Allen and Rep. Wes Breckenridge also attended the town hall meeting.

Beyond agricultural issues, the town hall touched on public education and immigration policy. Rural Newton resident Linda Wormley called Iowa SF 481 — a sanctuary cities bill that will require Iowa law enforcement agencies to comply with federal immigration detainer laws for people in custody — stoked by fear.

She asked Bullock how he would change the national narrative approach to immigration.

“It’s based on sheer fear. Thirty countries are represented at TPI Composites in Newton. The unemployment rates in northeast and northwest Iowa are 4.6-4.7 percent and farmers are having trouble finding employees. Where do we go to get rid of the fear?” Wormley asked.

Bullock said that U.S. immigration policy was changed by the outcome of the 2016 election and any shift back to a more inclusive approach will have to happen at the community level.

“My number one priority is to keep my community and my state safe. But we should never let fear or terrorism define the values that we hold toward one another,” Bullock said. “... The notion that people who have known no other life than as an American are now being used as, basically, an object to build a wall ... we all want to keep our community safe but we have to have a little bit more reason in the immigration policy.”

Bullock said his trip to Iowa came in part because of an invitation by Miller, who Bullock called a mentor while he was attorney general of Montana. The governor wants to help Democrats figure out a winning strategy in the 2018 midterms for rural and Midwestern states that flipped Republican in 2016.

Bullock is a two-term Democrat who won re-election by four points in a state that President Trump carried by 20 percent in 2016. When asked if Friday’s trip to Iowa could be laying the groundwork for a possible 2020 presidential bid, Bullock said he “has a great job right now” but did not deny a potential run for the White House.

“I think I have an important voice to add. Look, I’m concerned about where our country’s going. I’m concerned about where our party is going,” Bullock said. “If we’re not showing up and talking to folks in places like rural Iowa, Wisconsin or Michigan, we’re in a lot of trouble. So, I definitely want to be a part of that conversation.”

Contact Mike Mendenhall at

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