Rural America almost always votes reliably red. But many farmers say they’re growing uneasy with the Republican presidential ticket’s opposition to renewable-energy policies that have helped them economically — and that could hurt the GOP this year in traditionally friendly farm country.
Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney opposes a wind-energy production tax credit that has helped farmers bring in thousands of dollars in extra income by leasing their land to wind producers. And Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., opposes a national mandate for ethanol production, a policy that’s driven up demand — and, some say, prices — for corn.
The ethanol mandate, part of the reformulated fuel standard established in a 2007 energy law, has come under increasing attack as the drought continues to send crop prices soaring, but farmers still say they need it and other renewable-energy policies to maintain economic growth.
While Romney stands by his support of the ethanol mandate, Ryan’s record of full-throated opposition to it rubs corn and crop farmers the wrong way. In addition, Ryan’s budget roadmap proposes deep cuts in renewable-energy and nutrition programs that help farmers.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been doing steady outreach in farm states for months, spearheaded by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, who has held a slew of events with farmers aimed at highlighting the administration’s support for farm-friendly renewable-energy policy. And on Monday, Obama for the first time brought farm policy to the center of his campaign, slamming Ryan and House Republicans for failing to move a sweeping farm bill this year.
“We’re delighted that the president is talking about the farm bill. This is the first time that I can recall presidential candidates debating farm legislation,” said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, which has not endorsed a presidential candidate. “We’ve been encouraging him to talk about it. Secretary Vilsack has been talking about it for a long time. If there’s anything that unites us in the agriculture sector, it’s the desire to have a farm bill passed by September.”
But Johnson said that Romney’s opposition to the wind PTC and Ryan’s record of opposition to the ethanol mandate “are a big problem for us. We support renewables.… There are a lot of folks in rural America that have a lot of time and money invested in these kinds of renewable-energy initiatives — biofuels, wind, methane digesters. It’s a big difference that these two campaigns are opening up.”
Obama is also winning support from farmers for his backing of the Pentagon’s efforts to increase the use of biofuels in aircraft and ships. On Aug. 2, the National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau Federation sent a joint letter to the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee praising the Obama administration’s Agriculture and Energy departments for investing $170 million each in defense biofuel development.
The Obama campaign has a long way to go in winning over farmers, many of whom are especially angry at the Environmental Protection Agency for new air and water regulations that farmers fear will affect their bottom line. A CNN poll conducted Aug. 7-8 found Obama receiving 52 percent of general voters' support but just 41 percent from rural voters, while Romney won 45 percent from general voters but 54 percent from rural voters.
The Romney team expressed little concern that Obama’s farm push could hurt them. “The president has a terrible record on agriculture, and he’s terrible for farmers,” said David Kochel, the campaign’s Iowa strategist. “His tax policy, his aggressive regulatory policy — we’re going to win rural voters because this president has smothered them in unnecessary EPA regulations.”
And the campaign has made clear that despite growing calls from several groups — including livestock farmers, environmentalists, the oil industry, and a United Nations agriculture official — Romney is not backing down from his support of the 2007 law that requires U.S. farmers to produce 36 billion gallons of crop-based ethanol annually — of which no more than15 billion gallons can come from corn — by 2022.
Some farmers say that Romney’s choice of Ryan made them stand up and take notice, especially of a scathing critique Ryan wrote on the ethanol law a few months after it passed. In an op-ed in the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal, Ryan wrote that “this overreaching ethanol mandate has led to serious problems for families in Wisconsin and around the world. By converting food to fuel, prices for both have risen.”
The Ryan piece continues, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recently reported that the monthly grocery bill for the average American family is $70 higher today than it was just a year ago. The ethanol industry was not ready to take this kind of supply shock, and federal efforts to pick the winners and losers in the marketplace have had devastating consequences in food market.”
Colorado wheat farmer Kent Peppler, who heads up the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, said Ryan’s ethanol position will hurt the ticket with farmers, even if it’s not shared by Romney. “We look at the ticket as a whole. We’re at the age where we’ve seen a vice president become a president,” he said.
“The ethanol industry is extremely important to agriculture. It wouldn’t help anybody to come out in opposition to it in rural America,” Peppler said. “Ryan’s record on renewable energy and on farm bills is certainly going to hurt them in rural America. It puts rural America in play.”