Ag issues play a relatively minor role for both campaigns compared to the larger issues related to the economy, unemployment, deficit spending and tax rates.

Of the 311 million people living in America today, 51 million live in rural communities. Last year there were 2.1 million farming operations in the U.S., a number that has dropped four straight years.  But as it is with most presidential elections, the rural economies that make up agriculture and ranching industries are receiving short shrift.

Both candidates have made it a point to campaign in battleground states, such as Iowa, Wisconsin and Colorado, that have significant ag economies. But their time on the stump addressing ag issues has been relatively thin. Instead, both Obama and Romney have mostly offered policy sheets and written responses to state their goals for agriculture after the Nov. 6 election.

Using campaign materials from the campaign, and questionnaires given to ag groups – the following are some comparisons on key issues for ranchers and farmers as they head to the polls.

The issue: Estate taxes
At the end of December of this year, the tax resolution Obama signed with Congress in 2010 – to extend George W. Bush’s tax cuts for two years – will expire. Estate tax laws will revert to 2002 levels, meaning farms and ranches worth more than $1 million will be taxed at a rate of 55 percent upon inheritance.


President Obama is pushing a tax reform plan that would include returning the estate tax to 2009 levels. The top tax rate on estates would go from its current level of 35 percent up to 45 percent and move the tax exemption to $3.5 million per individual and $7 million per couple. Obama told the American Farm Bureau the move would exempt “all but the wealthiest 3 in 1,000 decedents from the tax, but still helps reduce the deficit.”

He also claims independent experts say only 60 small farm and business estates in the country would owe any estate tax in 2013 under that plan.

Romney pledges to permanently eliminate the estate tax so that no generational tax is incurred when farm assets are passed to the inheriting owner.

The issue: Income taxes
Both campaigns claim their tax approach focuses heavily on tackling the U.S. deficit while protecting Americans who are in the middle class. The question is how those tax brackets will help or hurt specific taxpayers, especially when a majority of farming and ranching income is taxed as individual income.

Obama’s timeline is to oppose any extension of tax cuts for annual household incomes above $250,000 at least for another year, he told the American Farm Bureau. He says that group of taxpayers covers 97 percent of all small business owners. On capital gains taxes, Obama said he’ll drop rates to what they were in the Clinton era, but will eliminate capital gains taxes on key small business investments.

Romney says he’ll push to cut marginal income tax rates (10, 15, 25, 28, 33 and 35 percent) across the board by 20 percent, but still keep the progressive tax rates based on income. This would generate job growth, Romney says, and by also closing exemptions and deductions keep revenue stable for government, although he has not specified which loopholes to target. He also wants to eliminate all taxes on savings and capital gains for families earning less than $200,000.

The issue: Energy
With the average gas price hitting $3.85 per gallon, ranchers and farmers are finding fuel costs sapping their business margins. Most U.S. corn supplies go to ethanol production instead of food production. Biofuel production is growing as an option thanks to ag production, but because of its reliance upon public funding, the industry is not fully independent.

Obama’s goal of cutting U.S. foreign oil dependence in half by 2020 is built upon a variety of energy sources. He supports keeping the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) and expanding biofuel development, along with an assortment of renewable fuel technologies. He cites the doubled fuel efficiency standards as a measure saving Americans thousands of dollars annually at the pump.

Along with more natural gas production, Obama cites the fact that the U.S. is producing more domestic oil than anytime in the past 14 years.

Pursuing an “all-of-the-above” energy plan that pushes clean alternatives, the Obama campaign says, has included doubling wind generation farms in the U.S. from 2008 to 2011. But it has also attracted criticism for failed ventures in solar, wind and green projects.

Romney also supports keeping the RFS in place, saying it’s a needed boon for producers “providing them the certainty they need to follow through on their investments” while strengthening ag economies.

Expanding conventional energy sources for oil, gas and coal on private and public lands are some primary options that Romney emphasizes, saying the number of leases and permits on federal lands have dropped by half. He is pushing for passage of the Keystone XL pipeline and more cross-border energy plans with Canada and Mexico.

The issue: Environmental regulation
Farmers and ranchers have grown anxious over recent legislative attempts to regulate navigable waters, endangered species, livestock marketing agreements, and the impact of dust under the Clean Air Act. Producers are asking both candidates what their philosophy will be in federal regulatory control over ag operations.

Obama has criticized what he calls “misinformation … about changes (to) environmental standards.” The president says no new standards will be applied to waters that have not been historically protected, and “all existing exemptions for agricultural discharges and waters are going to stay in place.”

He says his first-term executive orders were issued to make government review current regulations “to reduce costs, eliminate unnecessary burdens, and get rid of unnecessary paperwork” impeding ag producers.

On endangered species, the administration approved legislative changes that ended protection for wolves in the Great Lakes and Rocky Mountain regions, and he wants to support landowners who take voluntary steps to enhance habitat.

Romney says he has disagreed with much of “the massive overregulation” the Obama administration has passed, and intends to review all rules “that have burdened farmers and ranchers while weakening job creation and the rural economy.”

He criticizes EPA rules on air and water quality and Department of Labor regulations that aimed to reduce child labor accidents on farms and ranches. He says pesticide regulations under the Clean Water Act could likewise infringe upon ag producers owning properties and waterways.

Romney also criticizes the legal processes with regulations, saying “repetitive reviews and strategic lawsuits should not be allowed to endlessly delay progress or force the government into imposing rules behind closed doors that it would not approve in public.”

The issue: Immigration
Ag producers, including those in the beef industry, have seen significant growth in immigrant work force members. On the other hand, ranchers along border states are increasingly frustrated by criminal behavior linked to unsecured borders.

To help stabilize the legality of workers, ag leaders have waited several years for Congress and the president to push a labor bill that addresses work shortages.

Obama pushed the AgJOBS Act in 2009 to enable foreign worker hiring and enable easier citizenship (the bill eventually died). He advocates forming a new “Office of Farmworker Opportunities” at USDA. This summer he issued an executive order halting the deportations of illegal residents that came to the U.S. as children, and granting them a two-year period to begin citizenship applications.

The measure was a reaction to Congress’ indecision on the DREAM Act, which likewise would open avenues to permanent residency for illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. with parents before age 16, and are college students or in military service.

In the second debate, Obama said he has put “more border patrol on (Mexican border than at) any time in history” although PolitiFact reports have shown the number grew about 14 percent annual on average under George W. Bush.

Romney has said he would have opposed DREAM Act legislation, but he says he wants to make temporary worker visas easier to attain with principles similar to Obama’s law – granting permanent residency to college graduates with in-demand disciplines.

He says tougher enforcement is needed on the border, with high-tech fencing necessary to do the job as well as more officers, and exit verification to monitor visas. He advocates the E-Verify system used by Arizona state law, where employers can research to see which laborers are legally allowed in the country.

The issue: Trade
Farm exports hit record levels in 2011 with $137.4 billion in outgoing goods from farms and ranches. Beef exports specifically hit records in volume and value ($5.4 billion) in 2011. Producers of all goods have relied increasingly on more buyers overseas since international markets have recovered from the recession as fast, if not faster than the U.S. economy.

Obama has pushed his National Export Initiative, announced in 2010, which aims to double U.S. exports by the end of 2014. The president signed free trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea this year, although they originated in the previous administration. Those deals should boost ag exports by $2.3 billion annually. Obama says new deals with the Trans Pacific Partnership (Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, Chile and Peru, among others) will open more doors once completed, and the administration has targeted EU trade barriers as a negotiation priority for expanded exports.

Romney has criticized the Obama administration for the time taken to pass deals with Panama, Colombia and South Korea, and those started as well on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying they were inherited negotiations ready for passage. He sharply points out that China’s currency is undervalued and needs to be addressed by the president to help the U.S. trade deficit.

Appreciation of Chinese yuan, Romney says, would give Chinese people more power to buy American goods, and level the playing field with China’s trade advantage. Critics say this could spark a trade war between the U.S. and China.

Romney is also pushing for Trade Promotion Authority, also known as the “fast track” authority, to negotiate trade deals without amendment from Congress. The Republican Senate pushed to restore the authority to Obama in 2011, but Democrats rejected it, saying it would disrupt existing trade deals.

The issue: Farm bill and crop insurance
The 2012 Farm Bill gridlock has become a bargaining chip for both parties during an intense election year. The Democratic-controlled Senate passed a five-year $969 billion bill in summer, but the full Republican-controlled House didn’t vote on it. House members did pass an emergency bill for $383 million in drought relief in August, but the Senate likewise stalled on it before the fall recess.

The Democratic measure of the new farm bill would cut $4.5 billion from food stamp annual spending. Democrats rejected the House Ag Committee’s move for $16.5 billion in food stamp cuts as too heavy.

Obama says the new farm bill needs to maintain crop insurance programs and extended disaster assistance to help in situations like this summer’s drought. Last February his 2013 budget proposal tried to cut subsidies by $32 billion over a 10-year period. That included $5 billion cuts a year in direct payments to farmers made regardless of need. He has also proposed cuts to conservation programs as a way to reduce deficit spending.

Obama voiced support for the Senate Farm Bill, which eliminated the direct payment subsidies by $20 billion over 10 years, but boosted crop insurance subsidy to $9 billion annually. Those crop insurance payouts will have to follow conservation requirements. The bill also caps payouts to producers, based on their adjusted gross income, and if they actually live on the farm.

Romney has not been specific on farm bill legislation, other than to support his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., against criticism that Republicans stalled the bill. Romney has said the funding for farm programs should have “the appropriate risk management tools” but has not said clearly which version, Senate or House, he advocated. He says near-term priorities would be to enact “disaster relief for those not traditionally covered by crop insurance as this year’s drought has worsened.” In primary debates he has increased his support for subsidies, including those marked to create renewable energy sources. end mark

American Farm Bureau Federation
American Soybean Association

Obama campaign:

Romney campaign:

Congressional Budget Office: