Michigan farmers can't find a candidate to rally around

By Jacob Meschke, Medill News Service  |  March 7, 2016 at 4:34 PM
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LANSING, Mich., March 7 -- Promises of restoring America's greatness don't impress Alan Garner. After more than 40 years farming 2,800 acres of corn and soybeans in central Michigan, his priorities are more grounded. He's looking for candidates who address how issues affect him as a farmer—markets for his crops, workers for his fields and freedom from overregulation.

Garner, a longtime Lansing resident, and many like him are frustrated with the lack of clarity on their issues, making it hard to commit to a name in the Tuesday's Michigan primary.

"When I hear the candidates speak about those issues in general, I never hear them mention agriculture," said David Schweikhardt, a professor of agricultural and trade policy at Michigan State University. "I cannot perceive any one of the candidates that's got a handle on all of the issues important to this sector."

RealClearPolitics polling averages have businessman Donald Trump 17 points ahead of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the Republican race, but many in the ag community are far from sold on the brash front-runner.

Only Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the GOP field support expanding free trade opportunities, while Rubio and Cruz have showed the strongest opposition to EPA regulations. Trump, Cruz and Rubio have adopted anti-immigration stances.

On the Democrat ballot, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont face tall odds as most rural Michiganians are conservative voters (a Democratic congressman holds only 1 of 11 seats outside Detroit).

"The people who are supporting Trump are very passionate about it," said Ed Kretchman, 57, whose farm in southeast Michigan's Berrien County has been in his family for four generations. "But I've also heard people like me, who were drawn toward him at the beginning, in the last month say, 'I'm beginning to wonder if he's really the real deal.'They're exploring other candidates."

Michigan is a major producer of fruit, soybeans and sugar beets, but grows over 300 different commodities. Agriculture makes up more than 20 percent of the state's $448 billion economy, and agriculture-related businesses employ nearly 1 million people, roughly 12 percent of eligible voters, according to a 2012 Michigan State University study. As entrepreneurs and small business owners, many of these prospective voters are invested and engaged in the political process, often through county farm bureaus.

Every candidate has weighed in on free trade, an issue that deeply affects farmers. Trump has proposed paying for a wall along the Mexican border by effectively halting ending North American Free Trade Agreement—NAFTA—in its current form. Schweikhardt says that would hurt agriculture.

"The United States, and Michigan in particular, are selling a much higher volume of dry beans to Mexico than before NAFTA," Schweikhardt said. "If Mexico retaliates, agriculture will be front and center of the proverbial firing squad."

Among the candidates, only Rubio and Kasich support the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement that would take down trade barriers with 11 countries primarily in Southeast Asia. The deal would open more foreign markets for crop exports, which many farmers want. Trump has called the TPP a "disaster," suggesting the United States is not getting a good bargain from its trading partners.

"In the long run, I think free trade agreements are a benefit," Alan Garner said. "I don't feel we're giving away the store, as some candidates would have us believe."

Garner says trade is one of the reasons he's wary of Trump. He believes Trump's opposition to the TPP is evidence his business experience won't necessarily translate to governing.

Farmers also cited creeping federal regulation as one of their biggest concerns heading into the election. According to Republican Rep. Candice Miller, whose district covers the "thumb," one of Michigan's most productive regions, the EPA and other agencies have "really overreached and has caused real problems."

"Government handicapping starts to halt what you're able to do," Kretchman said. "Let us do what we do best: produce a product. We've been doing that for a long time."

Cruz has repeatedly said the EPA is one of several federal government agencies he would eliminate. But Rubio is the only candidate to have firmly pledged to undo the recent Waters of the U.S. ruling, which most farmers oppose. Tied up court, the reinterpretation of the 1972 Clean Water Act would give the EPA unprecedented control over bodies of water like ponds and drainage ditches.

"What the EPA wants to do could really make it a real change to land that's been farmed for generations," Kretchman said. "I don't see any rhyme or reason to why the EPA is doing this."

The Obama administration believes the new rule will help prevent pollution and maintain environmental quality, but farmers say it's an unnecessary hassle.

Cruz and Rubio have been the most vocal about reining in the EPA, yet both voted against the 2014 farm bill, which has widespread support from farmers.

The two senators have also closely echoed Trump's fierce anti-immigration rhetoric. The real estate billionaire has said he would deport the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, as well as build a wall at the Mexio border. Michigan farmers depend on an estimated 50,000 migrant workers annually, and harsh stances on immigration have left some with concerns.

"The strong language in terms of rounding up 12 million [undocumented immigrants] does not go over at all well here," said Merle Langeland, president of the Ottawa County Farm Bureau, in the state's third-largest producing county. "A lot of farmers feel it's impractical and morally wrong."

Farmers also say the guest worker program is not performing well in terms of efficiently handling the flow of migrant workers each season.

"I'd like to see a good guest worker program be implemented that could make the current one more doable for a producer to get the labor he needs to do the jobs required," Ed Kretchman said in a phone interview. "The system just can't handle the amount of labor needed in total."

Kasich is the only candidate who has addressed the guest work program specifically. He has promised to present Congress with a proposal for a revamped program within 100 days of taking office.

Bruce Sutherland, vice president of Michigan Agricultural Commodities, the state's largest grain elevator, shares reservations about Trump on his issue. In a business based on transportation, Sutherland was attracted by Trump's repeated promises to rebuild domestic infrastructure. But Trump hasn't made the sale with Sutherland, due to a lack of details.

"Until we know what Trump has to say, it's very difficult to be able to line up behind him," Sutherland said. "Voting for him is going to be difficult because I don't know where he stands."

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