Sen. Bernie Sanders has unveiled in a new plan for agriculture and rural investment as his campaign looks to win over Iowa farmers ahead of next year’s Democratic caucuses in the state.
“There is something very beautiful and special about the rural way of life,” Sanders said in a speech announcing the plan in Osage, Iowa on Sunday. “But let me be very honest with you […] rural America is in a state of massive decline and that is an issue that we have got to address.”
Sanders’ proposal is lengthy, with more than fifty action items. They range in topic from preventing major agri-business mergers — like Monsanto and Bayer — to patent law reform protecting small farmers and the strengthening of organic standards.
The Vermont senator told three different crowds over the weekend that the White House and both parties in congress have neglected what he called the “crisis” in rural America. In his Sunday speech, Sanders cited data from the US Department of Agriculture, stating that for “every dollar Americans spend on food, farmers earn less than 15 cents.” That’s the lowest share level for famers since the metric was first recorded in 1993.
While the event was open to the public, the campaign reserved seating for invited local farmers, four of whom spoke before Sanders took the podium. Retired third-generation family farmer Larry Ginter was one of them.
“It’s time to raise less corn and more hell,” he said. “It’s time to resurrect stability.”
Janet and Bill Butler, retired dairy farmers, drove two and a half hours from Wisconsin to hear Sanders. Janet now works as a social work therapist, providing the two with insurance they wouldn’t otherwise receive from farming alone.
“Farms are getting bigger and bigger. Smaller farms are going down,” Mr. Butler told CBS. “How much worse can it get?”
In his speech, Sanders tied economic distress in rural America to health problems, arguing that the best solution for farmers and others was to implement a single-payer health care system.
“Every person in rural America and every person in this country is entitled to healthcare as a human right,” Sanders told the crowd. “Farmers have some of the highest uninsured rates in America and 41 percent of dairy farmers lack health insurance.”
Mrs. Butler agreed. “Farmers have the highest rate of suicide in the country. We’re kind of the forgotten people.”
Suicide rates came up again on Sunday afternoon when a woman in Spencer, Iowa who identified herself as a health care worker asked what he would do to combat depression and other psychological issues among farmers.
“When you have people in trouble, it is not asking too much that they get quality help to address their crisis,” Sanders replied. “I will do everything I can to bring hope to farmers.”
Attendees at Sanders’ expressed alarm about the state of Iowa’s farms, which have struggled amid low prices for staple commodities. “Our current system in place is crumbling,” Marjorie Hanneman, an agronomy major, told CBS News at an event at the Iowa State University at Ames.
In his policy rollout Sunday, Sanders also addressed the affect factory farms have on the environment.
“When we talk about how giant factory farms are destroying the social fabric of rural America, we cannot ignore the horrific environmental impact that they are having on rural communities,” he said.
Listening were Gail and Jeff Schwartzkopf of Rudd, Iowa. The two live on farm land not far from a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO. They say hog carcasses in the CAFO pollute the air and create an unbearable stench.
“We don’t even walk [outside] because it stinks,” said Mrs. Schwartzkopf. “It smells like methane gas. We can always smell it.”
They worry about manure and chemicals polluting their well water. They do not drink from the tap in their home, and spend $150 every six months to get their water tested for toxins. No test has come back positive.
Squash farmer and Sanders supporter David Bushaw weeds, tills, and picks his crops by hand. Outside of farming, he works a full time job. “An independent farm alone is not sustainable,” he told CBS. “We’re being taken over.”
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