Sanders ag-policy speech at Mitchell County Fairgrounds foreshadows upcoming presidential race

While volunteers of the Bernie Sanders campaign escorted people to their seats, occasionally they would crane their necks towards the rafters of the open-sided Swine Barn at Mitchell County Fairgrounds.  Once in a while, they might catch a glimpse of a swallow or some other winged-critter fluttering about.

Reporters, photographers and camera operators from national outfits glanced past the rickety wooden bleachers — which are only familiar with the manure-caked, denim-covered backsides of farmers and fair-goers in the sweltering heat of early August — to gaze yearningly at the inviting facade of the vacant Cedar River Complex Events Center. The expression on their faces all begged the same question: Why are we in a dirty pig-barn instead of over there?

For a candidate who has — if only ostensibly — found the bulk of his supporters in urban areas and college campuses, one couldn’t help but think the “Bernie” podium felt out of place on the dirt floor where in a few short months the kids of farmers will be parading their best-looking sows. 

Adjacent to the Swine Barn, The 77 year-old Senator from Vermont paced back and forth along rows of empty sheep pens, waiting for his guest speakers to finish their plugs.

The self proclaimed Democratic socialist rolling out his Ag-policies in a pig barn was about political showmanship, not because he couldn’t find a comfier venue.

He needed to connect with farmers. He needed to appear authentic, to be genuine.

“What this fight is about, is not complicated…Some people are writing off rural America.”

When he stood before the microphones, the flash-bulbs and the applause, Sanders ripped into his ag platform with passion and enthusiasm defiant of his age, gripping the podium with one hand and waving a finger with the other.

EJ Photo/Travis Charlson

“What this fight is about, is not complicated,” Sanders said. “Some people are writing off rural America.

“Two thirds of Iowa’s counties… have experienced declining populations. We have seen schools, churches, and community centers shut down. And we have seen vibrant main streets boarded up and deserted.”

He slammed big Ag, spoke against subsidy programs that favor corporate and factory farms and leave small, family farms in the lurch.

He called for anti-trust laws and patent reform laws, vowing to break up the monopolization of the industry by companies like Monsanto.

But no matter which side of the political ledger you fall, Sanders’s speech was a poignant reminder: when it comes to farming,  there isn’t a whole lot of optimism to go around these days.

According to a recent Iowa State University study, farm incomes in Iowa have plummeted by 75 percent in the last 5 years. The annual study, called “Rural Iowa at a Glance”, said the farm economy is essentially in “free-fall”.

Other studies indicate the number of farmers has dropped by 70,000 in the same time frame.


“We have seen schools, churches, and community centers shut down. And we have seen vibrant main streets boarded up and deserted.”

It’s easy to see why- with such a high cost of investment coupled by an uncertainty of returns, farmers take a huge risk every time they pull a tractor out of the shed.

Like a degenerate gambler in a backwash casino who has wagered his last dollar, farmers can only hang on to their cards and hope the sun bleeding westward beyond the horizon will come around and rise again.

But it’s not just the farmers that are faced with uncertain futures – rural Iowa as a whole is feeling the pinch.

Politicians and community leaders know it, and all echo the same phrase: “We’ve got to do something”.

EJ Photo/Travis Charlson

Because the way things are, they way they’ve always been done before, just wont cut it anymore if rural communities are to survive.

Sanders knows this. And most candidates that cycle through Iowa between now and next Election Day do too.

The truth of the matter was driven home last summer, when Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order to create  the “Empower Rural Iowa Initiative”.

The three-page document was coated in a veneer of optimistic language, and basically set up a task force to tackle “the unique challenges and opportunities in Iowa”.

But the fact that our governor had to sign into law an executive order demanding an “innovative approach to addressing the needs and desires of its rural residents” makes the point all the more clear:

We’ve got to do something.

Or, as a farmer might put it: Can’t dance, and it’s too wet to plow.


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