Drought afflicted ears of corn sit in the sun at Maple Lawn Farms near Keokuk, Iowa on August 6th 2012.
Credit: Faine Greenwood

LEE COUNTY, Iowa — Field after field of dying corn, wilting lawns, and overheated cattle: the famously productive American Midwest is drying up in the face of one of the worst drought years in recent history.

“It’s almost as bad as I’ve seen,” long-time Iowa farmer Bob Leu said. He was sitting in the back of a pickup truck with three ears of scrawny, deformed corn beside him.

Leu and others were gathered on a small farm in southeastern Iowa, waiting for state Democratic Senator Tom Harkin to begin a speech on the 2012 farm bill. A number of farmers had brought examples of their own sickly-looking corn to show the lawmaker.

The 2012 farm bill proposes a cocktail of funds for nutrition, conservation, agriculture subsidies, and crop insurance, to replace a 2008 farm bill set to expire on September 30 of this year.

Many farmers favor the bill, which would, among other changes, eliminate spendy direct payments to producers and replace them with subsidized insurance programs, in the process saving a projected $9.3 billion.

However, the new bill is currently being held up in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, largely over objections to funds devoted to food stamps. Domestic food assistance currently makes up around 80 percent of the bill's spending, and the House wants to cut that by $16.5 billion, an unpalatable proposal for the Senate.

Further, five disaster programs provided for in the 2008 bill already expired last year — a real concern for Midwesterners dealing with drought, especially if a compromise can't be reached in DC next month. 

In his speech, Harkin made clear to the assembled farmers that he wasn’t happy about it.

“We passed a good bill in the Senate,” Senator Harkin — who is also the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions — told the crowd.

“It had bipartisan support. But the [House of Representatives] is taking a different course of action," he said. "Foolishly, I thought the House would pass that bill, but there are a few die-hards in the House who want it ‘my way or the highway.”

Urbanites and the simply oblivious may believe the plight of the US Midwest doesn’t have much to do with them. But the worries of Lee County farmers over the drought and the deadlocked farm bill could have a big impact on the coming presidential election as they prepare to cast their votes.

President Barack Obama is fully aware of the import of courting voters in Iowa, a legendary battleground state in US elections. On the stump in Council Bluffs, Iowa this week, he used the farm bill to hammer Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, claiming that “right now, too many members of Congress are blocking the farm bill from becoming law.”

Ryan didn’t reference the farm bill or the drought in his Iowa State Fair speech in Des Moines on Monday.

While the House deadlock over the farm bill is largely due to proposed cuts to food stamp programs, disaster funds for farmers are locked up too, a matter of great import for Midwestern voters.

Harkin made sure to emphasize that in his corn-field visit.

“We have good disaster provision in our bill, but the House wouldn’t do it,” said Harkin. “They paid for the disaster bill by taking it out of the agriculture budget.”

Harkin was referring to the House’s Aug. 2 passage of a stand-alone disaster bill — separate from the 2012 farm bill — which would fund $383 million in disaster assistance for cattle and fruit farmers by taking money from two conservation funds.

But those funds would do little for the Iowa farmers that had gathered to hear Harkin speak, because most of them specialize in corn and soybeans. The passage of the full 2012 farm bill would be much more in their favor than the stop-gap measure that's being supported in the House.

Further, many of the farmers — with the experience of disastrous Mississippi River flooding in 2008 still fresh in their minds — said they were in favor of the conservation measures, especially those related to watershed protection.

Harkin said he hoped a farm bill in some guise would be pushed through as soon as September, when Congress is back in session. The sooner, the better, for everyone who'd come to hear him speak. 

The 2012 bill doesn’t just affect Iowa: the drought is hitting the entire Midwest, including Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all largely considered to be contested ground in the upcoming presidential race. In the battle for voter loyalty, whichever party can claim credit for passing a palatable farm bill may have an important leg up.

Harkin knows that, too.

“It’s bizarre to think that something that’s this well supported wouldn’t pass, “ Harkin told the crowd in Lee County. “We need the bill out in September so we can get adjustments made.”

“We’re going to have to, one way or the other, compromise,” he added.

The nature of that compromise — and how a group of Lee County farmers feel about it — may be of pivotal importance in November.

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