Commentary: What should candidates know about agriculture?

Issue Date: August 17, 2016
By Stewart Truelsen
It’s been 148 years since two major-party presidential candidates with farming experience faced one another. That was when Ulysses S. Grant, above left, defeated Horatio Seymour, above right.
Historical portraits/Library of Congress
Regardless of whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins election this year, the new president will rely on her or his eventual secretary of agriculture for advice on issues affecting American farmers and ranchers.

It's been almost 150 years since two men who had farmed squared off against each other in a presidential election, and it may never happen again. But candidates don't need firsthand experience to understand the needs of farmers and ranchers or to appreciate the work they do. As President Eisenhower said, "You know, farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you're a thousand miles from the corn field."

What do the 2016 presidential candidates know about agriculture? Democrat Hillary Clinton attended school in Park Ridge, Ill., where the general headquarters of the American Farm Bureau Federation once was located. Chances are she wasn't aware of Farm Bureau or farm issues as a young person.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump feels at home in Manhattan, where he negotiated real estate deals—that's the borough of New York City, not Manhattan, Kan. He was criticized by a primary opponent for having "New York values." New York state has thousands of farms producing a wide variety of agricultural products on about a quarter of the state's land, so the value of agriculture must not be overlooked in the Empire State.

In the nation's history, some candidates arrived on the campaign scene with a good knowledge of agriculture and a strong desire to win the farm vote. President Truman not only tried his hand at farming but was a county Farm Bureau president as a young man. His rural background helped him defeat a more citified Thomas Dewey. President Carter's family owned a peanut farm and warehouse at Plains, Ga.

In the election of 1868, both Republican and Democratic candidates had been farmers. Democrat Horatio Seymour preferred farming to holding political office and is said to be the only presidential candidate ever compelled to run against his will: Convention delegates drafted him over his strong objection. He lost to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who farmed for several years near St. Louis before the Civil War.

Presidential candidates run on party platforms that always include agriculture. Whoever is elected will be advised on agricultural matters by the secretary of agriculture they appoint to their Cabinet.

President Franklin Roosevelt had Henry A. Wallace to steer the farm economy through the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. Ezra Taft Benson was secretary during both of Eisenhower's terms. President Reagan, who understood the importance of agriculture as a former governor of California, relied on John Block and Richard Lyng.

Congress drafts farm legislation, so it is a plus to have men and women in the House and Senate with farm backgrounds. Sen. Mike Johanns, who received the American Farm Bureau Distinguished Service Award this year, grew up on a farm, served as secretary of agriculture under George W. Bush, and as a senator from Nebraska before his retirement. But there are few like him in Congress anymore.

Perhaps the most we can hope for is that presidential candidates are willing to listen to farmers and ranchers and realize that the federal government doesn't have all the answers.

Eisenhower again said it best: "The proper role of government, however, is that of partner with the farmer—never his master."

If this year's candidates know little else about American agriculture, they should learn that much.

(Stewart Truelsen is a food and agriculture freelance writer based in Illinois.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.