With the national political conventions getting underway, the campaign season is moving into high gear. At the just concluded Indiana State Fair, candidates seeking elected office were more numerous than flies in the hog barn. One of the more interesting and informative political events took place during the Hoosier State Fair: a debate between the candidates for Lt. Governor. The Lt. Governor is also Indiana’s Secretary of Agriculture. The questions came from agricultural journalists, so they were ag related and did not deal with how high food prices would be going up due to the drought. In fact, since this is a state race, there were no questions asked about the Farm Bill which is a federal issue, although several of the candidates referred to the legislation that will likely be enacted before they ever take office.
The three candidates were Sue Ellspermann (R), Brad Klopfenstein (L), and Vi Simpson (D). The debate covered most, but not all, of the top issues facing Indiana farmers. There were no big surprises, no big blunders, and very little in the way of specific programs or policies announced. Yet each of the candidates did, although perhaps unwittingly, reveal their vision of the future of Indiana agriculture to the standing room only crowd.
Let me start with Brad Klopfenstein, the Libertarian candidate. Since this is on the opinion page and not the news page, I can say this guy has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the election. His jovial and humorous approach to the issues indicated to me that he knows he is not going to win and, as a result, did not take the whole thing seriously. He was not well briefed on the issues and, since Libertarians are for less government involvement, most of his answers came down to just let farmers farm. While I am not a fan of big government, the Libertarians laissez faire approach to policy is not what will serve the food, fiber, and fuel industry of the future.
Vi Simpson is the running mate of Democratic candidate for Governor John Gregg. Simpson understands state government, having spent more than 2 decades in the General Assembly. This experience was evident as she dealt with questions dealing with property taxes. This is a hot issue with Indiana farmers who have seen their taxes go up and who were opposed to the changes made in the property tax system by the Daniels administration. Simpson also was not afraid to tackle the issue of funding rural road and infrastructure improvements.
Sue Ellspermann is running mate of Mike Pence, the Republican candidate for Governor. She was the only candidate that had announced a complete agricultural policy platform prior to the debate. Ellspermann was the most prepared, quoting facts, figures, and programs by name. She was also not afraid to propose new initiatives, even if they did not have a lot of detail. She excelled in answering questions about agricultural innovation, agricultural education, and rural health care.
If you want to know the specific details on specific issues, go to the Hoosier Ag today web site and listen to the entire program. What you will hear in each of the answers is a vision of how each candidate sees agriculture. This ultimately may be your best indication of which candidates should get your vote. Indiana farmers have seen over the past 8 year how powerful and productive a focused vision of agriculture can be. The Daniels/Skillman administration has had a clear and focused vision when it comes to agriculture. Their pro-growth approach has determined their policy from environmental regulations, to conservation, to international trade. As a result, Indiana’s ag sector has flourished while other states have not.
While Ellspermann is a Republican, she is not content to just keep doing the same thing as her predecessor. Several times during the debate, she called for a re-evaluation and re-assessment of the current situation before moving forward. While Daniels/Skillman focused on growth, Pence/ Ellspermann focuses on competiveness. They see Indiana agriculture competing in a global market, and their goal is to give Indiana farmers the tools to compete in that market. They also recognize that the current programs and policies are 8 years old and may need to be updated to meet changing economic conditions.
Simpson also had words of praise for the accomplishments of the Daniels administration; however, she added a “but” to her praise. She said several times that current program and policies need to be reviewed and changed. Simpson said she wanted to bring back “Team AG,” a concept that existed prior to the establishment of the Indiana Department of Agriculture. Although Team Ag existed for the better part of 8 years, it did not unify Indiana agriculture or produce the kind of results that ISDA has done. Simpson focused a lot on Washington, referring several times to the lack of action on a Farm Bill. She also suggested that she would like to see ISDA actively lobby on federal issues.
It would be unfair and an oversimplification to say that Simpson’s vision was looking back and Ellspermann’s was looking forward. I will say, however, that I came away from the debate feeling that a Pence/Ellspermann administration sees a dynamic future for agriculture and wants to help Indiana farmers participate in it. Gregg/Simpson on the other hand, while seeing opportunity for growth in agriculture, want to take a more cautious approach and make sure everyone benefits equally from this growth. Your vision of the future of agriculture will determine which of these administrations you want to see in office.
And finally, if you read some of the non-farm media accounts of the debate, you will be told of several things that occurred at this debate. The problem is they did not happen! Shortly after the conclusion of the event, the Gregg/Simpson campaign released a facebook post that claimed Simpson had presented a comprehensive platform for agriculture. From my point of view, this is a gross exaggeration. She did not lay out a complete policy approach and even mentioned that a comprehensive policy position would be coming in the next few weeks. The Associated Press reported that the Farm Bill was the main topic of the debate. Nothing could be further from the truth. None of the questions dealt with the Farm Bill, and the candidates only referenced it a few times during the hour long program. The drought was also not a big issue during the debate, as has been reported by some news organizations. If this is what passes for objective political reporting in the country, we are in a heap of trouble.