By Matthew DeFour, The Wisconsin State Journal
Gov. Scott Walker heads back to Iowa this weekend alongside other Republican presidential contenders to showcase his record on agricultural issues.
The Iowa Ag Summit is being billed as a first-of-its-kind event where as many as 10 potential candidates will face questions about agriculture, with their views on corn-based ethanol and the federal renewable fuel standard being front-and-center.
Iowa holds the first nominating contest of the 2016 presidential election early next year, and with nearly half of the state's corn crop going toward ethanol production, even conservative Republicans in the state have backed government regulations that promote ethanol consumption.
Walker has so far not stated a position on the renewable fuel standard, which since 2005 has required that U.S. transportation fuels include a minimum amount of renewable fuels such as ethanol. He plans to address the issue at the Ag Summit on Saturday, spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.
Asked to highlight Walker's agricultural record, Kukowski pointed to a manufacturing and agriculture tax credit that is set to fully phase in by 2016 -- though at a cost to the state that is $275 million more over the next two years than was originally projected when it passed in 2011. She also mentioned his support for eliminating the federal estate tax and his interest in improving the state's decades-old "right-to-farm" law, which protects farmers from liability in certain lawsuits.
" Governor Walker will always stand in support of our farmers, rural development and our agricultural industries," Kukowski said. "He's been busy talking to folks and across the country on these issues and looks forward to having a good conversation this weekend in Iowa."
Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said Walker doesn't have much of an identity on agricultural issues, which could work in his favor.
"When you talk to people in Wisconsin, they're very polite, but they're like, 'Well, he (Walker) doesn't talk a lot about ag,'" Shaw said. "Coming into Iowa with a blank slate, and then having a thoughtful, educated position on these issues at the end of the day -- it puts Governor Walker in a good position if he takes advantage of it."
Walker, who speaks in the afternoon, will likely face questions about more than just the renewable fuel standard, said Craig Lang, a dairy farmer from Brooklyn, Iowa, and a former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau.
Wind energy, immigration reform, the U.S. farm bill, crop insurance and tax policy are all expected to be part of the mix. Bruce Rastetter, a pork and ethanol agribusiness magnate from the Iowa Falls area, is organizing the event and will serve as emcee.
About 900 people are expected to attend, plus about 200 journalists. The event marks the next big cattle call for prospective 2016 candidates after the Iowa Freedom Summit in late January and last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference outside of Washington, D.C.
"I'm very interested to see how they react to the questions that the moderator will ask," Lang said. "We know very little about (Walker's) ag record in Iowa."
Mixed reactions in Wisconsin
Walker's record in boosting the state's $88 billion agricultural economy draws mixed reactions from farmers.
The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, which has endorsed Walker in all three of his statewide gubernatorial runs and represents about 44,000 members, says he has "a very strong record on agricultural and farming issues."
But the Wisconsin Farmers Union, with roughly 2,500 members, says Walker "lacks any comprehensive vision for rural Wisconsin."
Paul Zimmerman, director of governmental relations for the Farm Bureau, highlighted several of Walker's policies that farmers have appreciated. They include:
--Creating a state income tax deduction for health savings accounts.
--Authorizing a wolf hunting and trapping season (though a federal judge has put it on hold).
--Providing funding for stormwater runoff mitigation programs.
--Increasing weight limits for trucks carrying farm machinery on local roads, as well as the fall harvest weight limit and limits on hay and livestock feed.
Kara O'Connor, government relations director for the Farmers Union, said Walker has provided "a smattering of candy" for rural interests, such as $9 million to expand facilities for the World Dairy Expo in Dane County. But she said "there doesn't seem to be any understanding of the global drivers that are going to strengthen the rural economy" -- namely transportation and education.
Walker's initiatives that O'Connor said have rubbed some farmers the wrong way include:
--A 2013-15 budget proposal to remove protections against foreign ownership of farmland, which was removed by the Legislature.
--A 2015-17 budget proposal to reduce the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection citizen board to an advisory role.
--Another recent budget proposal eliminating the requirement that the University of Wisconsin maintain a Center for Cooperatives at UW-Madison, part of a broader effort to give the UW System more autonomy.
"A lot of ethanol processing is in the form of a cooperative," O'Connor said. "If he has got it in for cooperatives, ethanol cooperatives in Iowa would want to take note."
She also said Walker's cuts to K-12 education over the years have caused some rural school districts to scale back agricultural programming. Walker's latest budget cuts overall K-12 funding, though it does increase certain schools aids intended to help geographically larger rural school districts.
Zimmerman disagreed with O'Connor's assessment of Walker's overall agricultural record, but acknowledged there are several areas the Farm Bureau is lobbying to change in his current budget proposal, particularly flat funding for municipal road budgets, changes to the DATCP board and the repeal of various fertilizer research fees.
The fees fund programs like the UW Discovery Farms, which conduct research on soil nutrient management and land and water conservation practices.
"(Farmers) have been willing to have a fee to help address water quality research, to make sure we're doing things right," Zimmerman said.
Thomas Bressner, executive director of the Wisconsin Agribusiness Association, said Walker has always done a good job promoting Wisconsin products like cheese and cranberries. During a 2013 trade mission to China, Walker helped connect Monroe-based Badger State Ethanol with a Shanghai feed company.
"As you go out in the rural part of the state you'll find they're huge supporters of the governor because he understands agriculture," Bressner said.