(Heartland Forum promotional graphic by Huffington Post)

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1 p.m. Central, Saturday, March 30.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: On March 30, 2019, Storm Lake Times Editor Art Cullen will moderate a presidential candidates’ forum in Storm Lake, Iowa. Cullen, winner of a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for editorials, wrote this piece in advance of that forum. The event is sponsored by the Times, Open Markets Action, Iowa Farmers Union, and Huffington Post, which will live-stream the event.


Five presidential candidates taking the stage Saturday for a forum on rural issues will be greeted by an audience of farmers under a depth of income stress not seen in 35 years. The Iowa Farmers Union is bringing them in by the busloads from the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin to rally in the morning at Storm Lake High School with farm activist groups and will ask questions of candidates at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake in the afternoon.

Suicide rates are soaring among the last of the independent Wisconsin dairy farmers getting squeezed out by consolidation and a USDA program that isn’t helping. Net farm income has dropped in half in the Midwest over the decade. Iowa corn and soy farmers have lost money five years in a row. Loan delinquencies are at their highest levels since the Farm Debt Crisis of the mid-1980s.

“Farmers and bankers are having difficult conversations,” said Aaron Heley Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union, himself a crop and livestock farmer from central Iowa. “Because of the loss of farm income, we are losing equity as we speak. A lot of people don’t have enough equity left to get them through this.”

Trade wars with China, Mexico and Canada tanked soybean markets for US farmers as Brazil emerged as a more reliable supplier. Rural people wonder when a third of the nation’s hogs are owned by a Chinese subsidiary, Smithfield Foods. And they wonder when JBS of Brazil, the biggest meatpacker, gets a disaster check from the USDA for Trump’s tariffs.

Farmland prices in Iowa fell 3% this year. That’s a pretty big drain on the state’s balance sheet, and its effects are felt all over in fewer sales of pickup trucks and not much new iron moving off the farm implement dealer’s lot.

The tax cuts haven’t hit home for Racine, Wisconsin, home of Snap-on Tools. The steel tariffs haven’t done a bit of good for the John Deere workers in Waterloo. Trump promised to bring back Midwestern manufacturing, but it simply doesn’t feel that way in those old river towns up and down the Mississippi from St. Paul to St. Louis.

Yet, there are theorems that Trump will lock up the Electoral College because the economy rocks. Wages have shown a bit of growth around here, but not enough to cover the kid’s college tuition. Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant threatened to close this year for lack of tuition. Tighter and later Medicaid reimbursements resulted in a score of small-town Iowa nursing homes closing, fraying family ties that hold together rural places.

Virtually every battleground poll at this early stage shows Trump underwater.

Things do not appear to be getting better.

Asian markets dropped precipitously early Monday based on sluggish Chinese prospects and, worse, something so arcane as an inverse bond-yield curve. Last Friday 10-year bonds paid less than short-term bonds, which economists view with a recessionary eyeball. Germany’s economy is soft, and Brexit will do nothing good for Europe overall in the next few months and years, unless you believe that Britannia still rules the waves.

It remains the economy, stupid, and while the things might be good on the coasts it looks less rosy over flooded southwest Iowa, where cattle drowned under snowmelt and soil washed down the Missouri to leave the land sterile. It will take years to recover.

The Midwest really never recovered from the loss of manufacturing jobs over the past 20 years, the wage stagnation, the 2008 recession or the farm crisis. We have made do, as always, but we would prefer to get ahead.

Which is why regardless of what the Mueller report says, and the statistical analysts working the Electoral College numbers, Trump remains in deep trouble in the pivotal Midwest — from Ohio to Iowa. The 2018 mid-term elections demonstrated voter anxiety by sending a wave of new Democratic members, most of them women, to Congress. Nothing has been done to break that wave. The current economic downturn from Kansas to Minnesota is real and is felt, and appears to have picked up steam since last November.

The Democrats coming this weekend — Julian Castro, John Delaney, Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan and Elizabeth Warren — will hear that immediate farm income relief is needed more urgently than anything else. Not loans, but income. It cannot come fast enough. A generation of dairy farmers is being sucked into the corporate vortex this year — as the last of the independent Iowa pork producers were taken to slaughter in 1998 by a surge in corporate production designed to wipe them out. Those who would beat Trump will hear that the rural Midwest is struggling to maintain what it has, that we are losing our educated young, and that our small towns are being choked by it all.

Whoever can offer a realistic alternative in front of a crowd of pragmatic farmers, who have seen and heard it all, will go far. Given the economic atmospherics, any one of them should prevail over Trump in the Midwest. The polls so far tell us that he is known to be a blowhard to can’t deliver when it matters. It’s hard to see how he can bake the economics in time for a second term.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake (Iowa) Times. He won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He’s the author of Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper. (Julianne Couch reviewed the book for the Daily Yonder in January 2019.)

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