By EMMA HOPKINS-O’BRIEN
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Late last month, Senatorial candidates vied for the trust of a roomful of farmers and other members of the Indiana agriculture industry as they explained, one at a time, why they would be the best man for the position this November.
Incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly and Republican challenger Mike Braun, a former member of the Indiana House (2014-17), spoke for about an hour each at the Ag Policy Summit, hosted by the Indiana Soybean Alliance and Indiana Corn Growers Assoc. They also took questions regarding their views on issues such as the farm bill, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), immigration, tariffs, trade and others.
As part of his introduction, Donnelly said he has served on the Senate Agriculture Committee for six years and that it has been “the privilege of a lifetime.” He mentioned later that he considers himself to be “from the cornfields of Indiana.” Before the Senate, he served in the U.S. House, during which time he was part of its ag committee.
Braun responded to questions on key agricultural issues after his introduction piece, in which he explained his background in business and suggested his success has, in the past, hinged on an unconventional style of handling situations and being an “outsider.” He said his focus in the Senate would align with President Trump’s, in the sense that he wants to help “drain the swamp” of career politicians.
In terms of agriculture, Braun said he raised turkeys before starting his auto parts distribution business, Meyer Distributing, and that he currently rents about 4,000 acres of land out to other farmers.
Both contenders answered questions regarding the 2018 farm bill, which is awaiting debate and resolution in conference committee for a final version. Donnelly said of the provisions in the proposed legislation, the one he is most proud of is the crop insurance piece.
“On the Senate side, the farm bill was written by you,” he said, referring to the 13 meetings he held throughout the state with various sectors of agriculture to get a feel for what the industry needs in the 2018 bill.
“It will have a strong crop insurance provision, it will have a strong conservation piece – among other provisions, it will support the fight against opioids, because, at the end of the day, there’s nothing more important than making sure our families come home every night and goes to bed safe,” Donnelly said.
Braun likewise acknowledged the importance of crop insurance in the farm bill. “If you are a farmer, you need crop insurance,” he said. “It defrays the cost of farming.”
He also believes coverage levels in the current crop insurance program are sufficient, and that expanding the market for corn and soy should be a focus because, as he pointed out, much progress has been made in recent years to find other uses for soy in particular.
Trade and Chinese tariffs were among the top questions from the audience. Donnelly said he feels the situation is becoming dire, and is “as serious as it gets,” adding that farmers are losing money on every bushel.
“You should not be the target in trade wars, but you are always first because they know what’s always in demand and what drives our economy,” he said. “I’m really concerned this isn’t ending soon. We don’t have that time. We’ll work nonstop to take that target off your back.”
Donnelly mentioned that $500 billion worth of tariffs are now on the table with China. Braun said he trusts Trump but would not hesitate to speak up if he thinks poor decisions are being made.
“I trust President Trump. He knows the significance, especially here in Indiana, of the farm community and other places that are feeling the short-term pain,”
“That cannot develop into chronic, and if that doesn’t reverse itself, I would weigh in that some adjustments need to be made, even though you still want to hold the Chinese accountable for their bad trading practices and other bad behavior.”
Donnelly said he is concerned trade relations may have been damaged as a result such tariffs. “One of my greatest fears about this tariff situation is, even when we get it fixed, our customers are going to say, ‘Well, we’ll need to have a second source just in case.’
“They need to know that they can count on you every single time – that you have the best products, fair prices and they know their values are not better anywhere else but with you. We need to be able to get that confidence back,” he said.
By contrast, Braun said being aggressive on China should be a priority. “European Union and Mexico are more complicated, but we needed to address them," he said. "Most farmers I've talked to like the fact we are addressing those issues."
Donnelly and Braun both said they support ethanol and the sale of E15 year-round, along with fixing the Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) issue that plays into why E15 sales are limited in the summer months.
Braun touched on additional topics as well, including the importance of fixing infrastructure and of tax reform, while Donnelly spoke on immigration and opioids.
“We have to get immigration right, because it’s important to our ag community,” Donnelly said, “so we have enough people picking the tomatoes, and enough people picking the crops. And that they are people that you know, and people that you create relationships with over the years.”
On the opioids front, he said treatment access for everyone, no matter where they live, is critical. He pointed out 1,000 people in Indiana lost their lives to the addiction just last year.
In wrap-up, Braun said his experience and knowledge in agriculture will help him understand and react appropriately to related issues.
“I feel real good about understanding the issues, having a deep context of experience and have said I’d love to be on the ag committee. That’s one area where I think I could walk on and probably do as good a job, if not better, than Joe Donnelly because I’m going to understand it from the context of a deep experience,” he added.
Donnelly ended on the note that he is “hired help” for Indiana people, and that doing what is best for them will always be his honor and priority.