DES MOINES, IOWA — “I understand the Ag barons have called a party, and you’re crashing it,” Bill Stowe, the CEO of Des Moines Water Works, told a group of farmers, activists and environmentalists gathered on Friday, the night before Republican politicians will ascend on Des Moines for the Iowa Agriculture Summit.
The summit was organized by ethanol industry executive and major Republican donor Bruce Rastetter, who will interview the 11 likely Republican presidential hopefuls. Rastetter claims the event will “highlight and promote agriculture” and give candidates including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) the chance to address topics including renewable fuels, GMO’s, land conservation and federal subsidies.
But activists and farmers gathered at the offices of the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI) told ThinkProgress that Rastetter’s “corporate ag” summit will manipulate the political process and spread messages and policies that will hurt family farmers and the agricultural industry.
Farmers and activists are concerned about factory farm production, the support for trade deals like NAFTA and the pressure to adopt genetic engineering and chemical technologies to increase production while polluting the environment.
“Corporate agribusiness is putting profits before people, profits before soil health, profits before sound crop production, profits before clean water and profits before the lives of rural people,” said Barb Kalbach, a fourth generation family farmer from Adair County, Iowa.
Rastetter is a multimillionaire and the CEO of the agribusiness corporation Summit Group. In recent years, his political activism has grown and he has used his money earned through pork, ethanol and farm real estate businesses to become the state’s highest Republican donor, funding conservatives across the country.
Though he’s touting the event as an “Agriculture Summit,” the policies discussed by Rastetter and the presidential hopefuls will lean toward agribusiness and the intersection of corporate wealth and farming.
George Naylor, a non-GMO corn and soybean family farmer and the past president of the National Family Farm Coalition, told ThinkProgress that the corporate vision for agriculture doesn’t take into account farmers or the environment. Corporations’ efforts have made commodities cheaper through overproduction which benefits the businesses but not the people working the land, he said.
“How can you expect to get a decent price for your commodity when farmers have no choice but to plant fencerow-to-fencerow and more and more typical commodities are being produced all over the world, so that adds to the big supply and depressed prices,” he said.
Alicia Harvie, director of advocacy for non-profit Farm Aid, told ThinkProgress that agribusiness supporters will attempt to “take ownership over the dialogue” during the summit using words like “family farmer,” when their policies actually undermine the farming communities.
“We’re very concerned about this effort to confuse the public about what’s in all of our best interests and about what family farm agriculture really is,” she said. “This extractive economy that takes health and takes wealth out of farming communities is unacceptable and we’re for transparency and have no illusions about what this conversation is really about.”
As Harvie said and as Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson noted in an op-ed in Politico Friday, the presidential hopefuls will tout corporate agriculture’s abilities to “feed the world.”
“The United States does not need to feed the world,” said Joe Harder of the farm organization Missouri Rural Crisis Center. “The world can feed itself and we’re better off when they do.”
“We know this doesn’t work,” said Frank James, a farm activist from South Dakota. “We know it doesn’t work for the eaters or the farmers or the communities. It’s time for this country to double down on family farmers, who will feed the world and each other. Quit messing with us.”