Candidates are skipping traditionally mighty farm issues in Iowa

One after another, trucks groaning with loads of corn haul their bounty to the Poet Biorefining facility.

Mountains of yellow bushels get ground to a flour, mixed with water, fermented, distilled and transformed to ethanol. That grain-to-fuel transformation props up grain prices and farm profits.

Farmers can thank the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses that have long prodded candidates to declare fealty to the local cash crop. That has led to federal mandates that put more corn in your gas tank.

Yet even in Iowa this year, Grain Belt concerns now draw less attention than in the past. That could mean that expansion of the Corning plant to include cellulosic ethanol production — adding corn cobs and stalks to the alcohol-making process — might never happen.

“Without assurances of a market for that fuel, it’s hard to get the investment” for something that could put more ethanol on the market, said plant manager Greg Olsen.

The industry insists it’s steering the presidential campaign toward the needs of Big Corn. It contends, for instance, that about 50,000 Iowans pledge to caucus with corn high among their priorities. That push, it says, will ultimately bolster government requirements that more of what you pump into your fuel tank come from a Midwestern grain field and less from oil fields.

But polls show Iowans developing a taste for free-market talk — undercutting government’s role in making kernels a threat to crude.

As the state nears its Feb. 1 caucuses, two of three candidates who’ve captured Iowa’s favor, Ben Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz, get lousy ratings from the ethanol crowd. Donald Trump leads the pack and has won high marks from the industry, but no one contends that corn made the New York mogul a frontrunner.

Rather, political scientists and party operatives say Iowa’s attention lies elsewhere.

In the crowded Republican free-for-all, candidates score best when bashing President Barack Obama, his namesake Obamacare and the political establishment more broadly.

Any contest on the Democratic side looks to turn more on whether Hillary Clinton’s experience boxes out Sen. Bernie Sanders’ talk of economic inequality.

One recent poll looked at what Iowa voters considered the most important issues in the election. They said the economy — nearly double any other topic — followed by their dissatisfaction with Washington broadly, federal spending and the deficit, terrorism, and the gap between rich and poor.

“Way back in the 1980s, when we were in the middle of a farm crisis, agriculture was the major issue,” said Mack Shelley, a political science professor at Iowa State University who conducted the poll. “Right now, even in Iowa, agricultural issues are not at the top of the list.”

Analysts see much at play. Flying over Iowa, or driving its highways, gives the impression of a place that’s about farming, farming, farming. But in Des Moines, Sioux City or the Quad Cities area, people cluster together away from tractors and storage silos into their factories and cubicles. In a state of 3.1 million people, just 66,000 operate farms. Agriculture trails manufacturing, finance, government, health care and real estate in contributing to the state’s economic output.

Consequently, Big Ag speaks for a minority of potential caucus goers.

“It’s simple math,” said Matt Strawn, the former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. “You’re seeing a generational shift. You hear fewer farm voices as more and more family farms have gone away.”

The state makes tractors. A downturn in farming can still ripple through the state economy. And voters even generations removed from the farm still care deeply about its status. But Strawn and others say the relative health of the Midwestern farm economy in recent years also nudges out of the political debate.

Grain prices took a dip this year in the face of bumper crops, but that followed boom times helped by how federal rules pushed demand for ethanol and corn.

The most prominent policy debate for Iowa farming turns on how much “renewable” material — such as ethanol — must be blended by fuel suppliers. Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set rules that would increase the demands.

But that Renewable Fuel Standard sets the levels at a number lower than what the ethanol industry wants and higher than that pressed by petroleum companies. The amount of attention given to ethanol in Iowa this year might tilt that battle one direction or the other.

The ethanol folks talk confidently.

“We’re making the candidates pay attention,” said Eric Branstad, son of the Iowa governor and state director for the ethanol-promoting group America’s Renewable Future. “They’re learning.”

The group recently launched a series of ads attacking Cruz for failure to support the Renewable Fuel Standard. And Branstad cited how candidate Mike Huckabee wrote recently in The Des Moines Register that “Washington is at war with farmers” over ethanol.

Some political operatives say the very need for such a campaign actually shows that the still-formidable influence of farming interests in the state is waning. In past election cycles, the candidates came to the industry to declare their bona fides. Now, they say, the industry must spend money to snag the attention of White House wannabes.

For decades prospective presidential candidates came to Neil Harl, an economist at Iowa State University, for briefings on farm policy. Not so much anymore. That might be partly because he’s retired, a professor emeritus now, he says.

But he detects a sharp drop in interest from campaigns in farming policy.

Campaigns recognize that signing up with Team Ethanol can cost them contributions from Big Oil, he said. They also know that the campaign beyond Iowa, especially for Republicans, won’t be so friendly to someone who endorses a big government role in shaping markets.

And, he said, they probably recognize that fewer farmers are left to turn an election.

“If they can avoid getting involved in agricultural policy,” he said, “they have.”

Farmers certainly take federal ag policy close to heart. Still, they describe themselves as Americans who farm, not the other way around.

Paul and Nancy Ackley tend to 80 head of cattle and 400 acres of grain fields near Bedford, Iowa. Ask about farm policy, and Paul Ackley brings up soil conservation — not ethanol. Ask about the campaign, and he’ll talk about his hopes of killing Obamacare, of pulling back government spending and cracking down on illegal immigration.

He has not settled on a favorite candidate. He likes the way Trump talks so bluntly but wonders whether he could deliver. He likes Cruz and thinks he might be a slightly more realistic choice. Carson and Sen. Rand Paul hold some appeal, too.

“Sometimes,” Ackley said, “it takes a while to see their true colors.”

In Fremont County near the Missouri border, John Whipple raises grain on about 1,000 acres. He took an early liking to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — who has since dropped out of the campaign — as a union-busting politician. That’s not a pressing issue on the farm, but Whipple thinks beyond his fence line.

“Trade matters as much as anything for farming,” he said. “I don’t think these guys know what they’re talking about on that yet.”

And Seth Watkins actually feels a little unsettled by efforts to promote ethanol, at least in the way they encourage growing corn on erodable land that might better be left fallow.

“I’ve not heard a single candidate talk about erosion,” said Watkins, who raises cattle and grows a small amount of crops.

It’s in that environment, analysts say, that farm issues take a back seat.

“On the Democratic side, it’s mostly talk about income inequality,” said Chris Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “The Republicans mostly stick to criticizing Obama and Hillary.”

In the end, said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford, Iowa Republicans probably will be noted for their social conservatism. It’s less, he said, a campaign about what’s in it for me — think higher corn prices — and more about how someone going to a caucus sees the world.

“Over the last decade and a half,” he said, “it’s become more about ideological causes.”