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Strong farm economy keeps ag issues off candidate radar

By JERRY HAGSTROM

Remember the days when the Iowa presidential caucuses were marked by big, serious debates over farm policy and ethanol?

Not this year. The farm economy is in possibly its best shape in American history and farm issues are not hot. Still, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has made an issue of the sale of raw milk — one of the most divisive topics in American agriculture — in the New Hampshire primary, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has tried to use the food stamp issue against President Barack Obama.

As Phil Brasher noted in the Des Moines Register this week, the Republican candidates generally agree on the benefits of free trade and oppose regulation, but “divide along fairly sharp ideological lines when it comes to agriculture policy.”

Harvest Public Media, a Midwestern local journalism center created with the support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, has compiled a report on the candidates’ statements on the farm bill, biofuels, agriculture and the environment, the future of farming, and broader global issues that concern farmers.

The center’s analysis shows that Gingrich is the only candidate who received an “A” grade from the Iowa Corn Growers Association in the issue areas of EPA, transportation, energy, trade and farm programs, and that he supports both a farm safety net and the renewable fuels standard that governs ethanol policy.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney “has remained virtually silent on the farm bill,” the center noted, while the Iowa Corn Growers’ report card shows that Romney hasn’t taken a position on crop insurance or conservation, and that the group gave him a “C” when it comes to support of the ACRE program. The center analysis shows that Romney has said he supports domestic renewable energy development, but has varied in his support for ethanol.

Harvest Public Media’s analysis of all the Republican candidates is linked below.

Paul has opposed farm subsidies, but his New Hampshire campaign recently got a boost when he came out in favor of the sale of unpasteurized milk in grocery stores.

“I would like to restore your right to drink raw milk anytime you like!,” Paul said last week to loud and sustained cheers in the historic Peterborough Town House, Bloomberg Businessweek reported.

Scientists have credited the invention of pasteurization as one of the greatest advances in human health, but small dairy farmers and consumers contend that raw milk tastes better, has certain health benefits and can be safe.

The National Milk Producers Federation, the nation’s largest group of dairy farmers, continues to oppose the sale of raw milk and its interstate shipment. Conventional dairy farmers fear that an outbreak of food-borne illness from raw milk could cause a deep reduction in milk consumption.

“The link between raw milk and food-borne illness has been well-documented in the scientific literature, with evidence spanning nearly 100 years,” Jamie Jonker, the vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs for National Milk, said in an email.

“Raw milk is a key vehicle in the transmission of human pathogens, including E. coli O157:H7, campylobacter, listeria monocytogenes, and salmonella,” Jonker said. "The National Milk Producers Federation opposes the direct sale of raw milk to consumers and opposes any legislative effort within a state or nationally that encourages the distribution and consumption of raw dairy products.”

Most analyses of agriculture issues in the Republican caucuses ignore food stamps even though that program — now officially known as the supplemental nutrition assistance program or SNAP — is by far the largest single item in the Agriculture Department budget.

But Gingrich has attempted to use the food stamp issue to gain conservative support. At a November campaign event in Cedar Rapids, Gingrich blamed Obama for an increase in food-stamp recipients, and also contended that the shift from coupons to electronic benefit transfer cards had amounted to giving credit cards to beneficiaries.

“Remember, this is the best food-stamp president in history,” Gingrich said, according to a report on PolitiFact.com. “So more Americans today get food stamps than before. And we now give it away as cash — you don’t get food stamps. You get a credit card, and the credit card can be used for anything. We have people who take their food stamp money and use it to go to Hawaii. They give food stamps now to millionaires because, after all, don't you want to be compassionate? You know, the Obama model: isn’t there somebody you’d like to give money to this week?”

In reality, the EBT cards cannot be used for anything but the purchase of food, and analysts of government programs have credited the cards with reducing food stamp fraud and abuse to its lowest point in the existence of the program.

USDA acknowledged that there was one case of a lottery winner in Michigan getting the benefits, but said that person has since been removed from the rolls.

Gingrich’s statement led PolitiFact.com, a St. Petersburg Times website that analyzes candidate statements for veracity, to give the candidate its “pants on fire” ranking for inaccuracy.