GOP ag leaders raise specter of regulation in Iowa’s Senate race

By: - September 14, 2022 5:13 pm

Former U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Franken (left) is challenging U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in the upcoming election. (Photos by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch and Mike Franken campaign)

Republican agriculture leaders sought Wednesday to frame Iowa’s U.S. Senate race as a choice between voluntary conservation practices and mandatory regulations — a characterization the Democratic candidate rejects.

“I believe those things should be voluntary in nature,” Mike Naig, the state’s agriculture secretary, told reporters Wednesday in support of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. “I worry that we may be headed down a path of trying to, you know, connect conservation compliance with things like crop insurance.”

That’s a policy in Europe, where many farmers must implement certain conservation practices to be eligible for government aid.

Grassley’s challenger, Mike Franken, a Democrat, wants voluntary strategies to remain and “does not support revoking support for farmers,” said C.J. Petersen, a spokesperson for Franken.

“Admiral Franken doesn’t believe that sustainable environmental practices and profitable farming are mutually exclusive — farmers want to keep the Earth healthy and be good stewards of the land they farm,” Petersen said.

Grassley seeks his eighth term in the Senate and is a senior member of its agriculture committee. He operates a farm with his son in northeast Iowa.

Franken is a retired U.S. Navy admiral whose recent campaign advertisements accuse Grassley of favoring big agricultural corporations over family farms, citing the decline of the number of smaller farms during Grassley’s tenure. He worked as a farm hand as a child, according to his website.

Whether a European regulatory policy might be transplanted to the United States is a question frequently posed to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who often responds in exasperation — “I don’t know how many times I have to say this” — with a “no.”

The Biden administration recently announced a voluntary, $3 billion federal program that seeks to improve soil and water quality and cut greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture.

And Iowa’s own conservation-minded policy, the 9-year-old Nutrient Reduction Strategy, is voluntary.

Yet Naig, a Republican, faces his own election challenge this fall from a Democrat who has said federal aid should be limited for farmers who plant on land that is frequently flooded or has highly erodible soil.

The challenger, John Norwood, has called the state policy a “strategy in name only” because of its voluntary nature and what he says is a lack of significant progress toward water quality improvements.

So, the specter of increased regulation for agriculture persists.

“This question of regulatory versus voluntary is a very large one,” said Craig Hill, former longtime president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, “and when Democratic responses occur, it tends to go toward regulation.”

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.