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)
Family farms are essential to the economies of rural Iowa, both of the state’s candidates for the U.S. Senate agree, but they differ on how to ensure the farms’ long-term viability.
Longtime U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, said a strong federal safety net for farmers and trade policies that benefit their exported products are most important.
His Democratic challenger, retired Navy Adm. Mike Franken, envisions a resurgence in the number of smaller farms — helmed by a new generation that grows crops beyond corn and soybeans — in an agricultural system that balances efficiency with redundancy.
The candidates’ remarks were part of back-to-back “Senate Candidate Conversations” this week hosted by the Iowa Farmers Union. The organization advocates for family farming, sustainable agriculture and strengthening rural communities.
The discussions with Grassley on Wednesday and Franken on Thursday were recorded and are available for viewing on the group’s Facebook page.
“We should be less concerned about the efficiencies and more concerned about the availability of our food supply,” Franken said.
He said Iowa used to be a “leader in a variety of crops that were farm to table. We’ve long since walked away from that.”
For decades, Iowa’s farms have been shrinking in number and growing in size, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, and that has contributed to rural population declines. There were about 85,000 farms in Iowa in 2020, compared with 206,000 in 1950.
The average farm size of 169 acres in 1950 had grown to 360 acres by 2020.
“We need to bring back the profitability of farming,” Franken said. “That’s not based on a corporate model, but more based on an individual model with guaranteed price points of sorts, and not this huge fluctuation that we see.”
Grassley said rural towns fare better when farmers are able to maximize their production. He said he supports the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers not to farm tracts of land to improve soil and water quality and wildlife habitat. But he warned that having too much farmland enrolled in a concentrated area can be detrimental to rural economies.
“Putting too much money into CRP in one area has ruined small businesses,” Grassley said.
Grassley also worries about federal initiatives that seek to shift the country to using electric vehicles and the impact it might have on the ethanol industry, which is an important market for the state’s corn. More than half of Iowa’s corn is used to make ethanol, and state and federal legislators have moved to increase its availability at fueling stations.
“When you are going in that direction (of electric vehicles), we’ve got the possibility of losing 46,000 jobs in biofuels in the United States,” Grassley said. “So I think one of the main things is — without maybe changing things — but defending the importance of biofuels and ethanol production in the United States — particularly in Iowa, being number one in biofuels — is very, very important.”
Franken said there are potential markets for biofuels beyond passenger vehicles that should be explored. He also said the emissions and heat generated by ethanol plants could be piped into greenhouses, where a variety of crops could be locally produced and distributed.
Both candidates said it’s important to expand local meat processing in Iowa to reduce the stranglehold that a small number of large companies have on the industry. Grassley for decades has pushed legislation that would help smaller cattle producers negotiate better-informed prices with meatpackers.
Grassley and Franken both grew up in rural Iowa; Franken in Lebanon and Grassley near New Hartford. Franken said he worked for farmers as a teenager and later at a slaughterhouse in Sioux Center.
Grassley grew up on a farm that is now primarily operated by his son and grandson. He touts himself as one of two active farmers currently serving in the Senate, and on Wednesday said he is part of the “backbone of representing the family farmer.”
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