President Barack Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (right) inspect drought damaged corn on the McIntosh farm during a stop near Missouri Valley Monday. Obama focused heavily on agriculture during a meeting with reporters in Boone later in the day.  Photo by Carolyn Kaster, AP
President Barack Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (right) inspect drought damaged corn on the McIntosh farm during a stop near Missouri Valley Monday. Obama focused heavily on agriculture during a meeting with reporters in Boone later in the day.  Photo by Carolyn Kaster, AP
Tuesday, August 14, 2012

BOONE — President Barack Obama Monday announced a raft of agricultural initiatives aimed at stemming the fallout from the worst drought in a generation.

At the same time, while the full effect of Mother Nature’s stinginess with rain in much of the nation unfolds, the president told a reporters’ roundtable in Boone that his administration deserved some credit for the generally favorable farm economy over the past four years.

“It’s no secret that a lot of times farmers vote Republican,” Obama said in response to a question from The Daily Times Herald. “I understand that. I guess some of it is just the sense that Democrats are from cities and don’t understand the farm economy. But if you look at our policies, the fact of the matter is that working with (U.S. Agriculture) Secretary (Tom) Vilsack and other’s I’ve been awfully good to farmers and ranchers, and I’ve kept my promises and I hope folks remember that when they go to the polls.”

Following a speech in downtown Boone, Obama conducted the 20-minute roundtable in a tent with The Daily Times Herald, Denison Bulletin-Review and Webster City Daily Freeman-Journal.

“I do hope that folks give my administration a little bit of credit because we’ve been very good for the farm economy,” Obama said.

According to press pool reports, Obama focused on the lack of rain and record heat in Council Bluffs during a speech there Monday that kicked off his three-day Iowa swing.

From Council Bluffs the president traveled to the farm of the McIntosh brothers — Dean, Don, Roger and Richard — in Missouri Valley. Along with Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, Obama discussed the drought and the yellowed, dry corn on the farm.

After a look at two portions of the McIntosh land, Obama spoke to a crowd of about 50 people on Roger and wife Karen’s front lawn, according to the press pool report.

“Obviously this drought has really hit folks hard here in Iowa,” Obama said at the Boone roundtable “One of my big priorities coming into office was making sure rural America, as one of the backbones of our overall economy, was successful.”

A strong farm economy, with business development in surrounding small towns, is essential to the nation’s overall economic health, the president said.

“The single most important thing we can do to help them is to pass this farm bill,” Obama said.

The farm bill passed the Senate 65-34 in June but remains stalled in the House.

“The fact that Congress has not passed that yet is inexcusable,” Obama said. “My expectation is that they’re going to be hearing from some folks back home, including here in Iowa.”

Even though the farm bill is languishing in Congress, there are administrative options, Obama said.

“We’ve opened up more land for grazing to help ranchers, and to help folks who are feeling a lot of pressure when it comes to livestock,” Obama said.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its intention to purchase up to $100 million of pork products, up to $10 million of catfish products, up to $50 million in chicken products, and up to $10 million of lamb products for federal food nutrition assistance programs, including food banks. Through the Emergency Surplus Removal Program, USDA can use funds to purchase meat and poultry products to assist farmers and ranchers who have been affected by natural disasters. The pork, lamb and catfish purchases are based on analyses of current market conditions. A major factor affecting livestock producers is the value of feed, which is currently running high because of the drought.

“I made the announcement today that I think is pretty important for livestock producers who are less likely to have insurance and that is the federal government is going to buy about $170 million worth of meat ahead of time so that it can be frozen. It will be used in schools, hospitals, food pantries, the Pentagon,” Obama said.

The administration also made the following moves Monday:

— Authorized $16 million in existing funds from its Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to target states experiencing exceptional and extreme drought.

— Authorized the transfer of $14 million in unobligated program funds into the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) to help farmers and ranchers rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters and for carrying out emergency water-conservation measures in periods of severe drought.

— Authorized haying and grazing of Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) easement areas in drought-affected areas where haying and grazing is consistent with conservation of wildlife habitat and wetlands.

— Lowered the reduction in the annual rental payment to producers on CRP acres used for emergency haying or grazing from 25 percent to 10 percent in 2012.

Simplified the Secretarial disaster designation process and reduced the time it takes to designate counties affected by disasters by 40 percent.

The Denison Bulletin-Review asked Obama what he hopes to see as his signature legacy in the White House.

“My most important legacy I hope is not only to have saved the country from another Depression, which we did, but to rebuild the economy so middle-class families and folks who are aspiring to the middle class can once again get ahead,” Obama said.

The keys to that, the president said, are bringing the middle class back, creating a fair tax code, keeping health care secure, and providing a top-notch education system.

“Those are all elements of a strong, vibrant middle class, and I believe when the middle class is doing well the whole country does well,” Obama said.

The president said he came into office in 2009 facing enormous fiscal challenges.

“We fought two wars on a credit card,” Obama said.

His administration has identified $2 trillion worth of spending cuts, but these can’t be done in isolation, the president said. Revenue must increase as well to a create a balanced attack at the national debt.

“The only way to do that is to combine the spending cuts with modest tax increases for folks like myself who are in the top 2 percent,” Obama said. “We can afford it.”

There are encouraging economic numbers in Iowa, Obama said.

“When it comes to Iowa the farm economy has actually been better than the overall economy,” Obama said. “In 2011, we’d actually seen farm incomes go up higher than they have in decades. We had seen farm exports expand significantly under my administration, partly because we’ve been prying open some of these other markets to make sure that American products can be sold all around the world.”

Carroll County farmland values hit an all-time high in 2011 of $7,921 per acre, a 33 percent increase over last year, according to Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s Iowa Land Value Survey.

Following a statewide trend — a 32.5 percent increase over the same period — Carroll-area counties posted record land values for 2011 with Calhoun County and Sac County showing the most expensive ground in the region at $8,617 and $8,427 acre averages, respectively.

In June, Carroll County posted a 3.7 percent unemployment rate. Iowa’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased slightly in June to 5.2. Meanwhile, the U.S. unemployment rate for June remained at 8.2 percent.

If the president is going to be blamed for the national unemployment numbers does he deserve some credit for the more favorable rate in Carroll County?

“I’d like to think I’d get some credit,” Obama said. “Tom Vilsack deserves a lot of credit. He’s been a great secretary of agriculture, and understands the farm economy.”

Obama noted that as a U.S. senator and state senator from Illinois he entered the presidency with a wealth of experience in farm policy, an understanding of rural America.

“People forget, too, that I come from a farm state,” Obama said. “Illinois, outside of Chicago and its suburbs, is basically just like Iowa. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we can improve the farm economy.”

A big chunk of that, the president said, was expanding exports. Obama cited trade bills with Panama and Colombia and, he said, most importantly, South Korea.

“Those are huge markets for American agricultural exports, not just crops but also livestock,” he said. “We’re making progress on that front. We’re seeing some historic export numbers for the farm economy. That helps everybody.”

A second prong, Obama said, is the biofuels industry, which supports 83,000 jobs in the region

“We’ve got to continue to make sure we support not just traditional ethanol but also cellulosic ethanol,” Obama said.

Specifically, there are 7,000 wind-energy jobs in Iowa, he added.

“This is a big difference between myself and Governor Romney,” Obama said. “He has said unequivocally he wants to end the wind-energy tax credit. When I see what’s been done here in Iowa to create a strong wind industry that is giving consumer electricity, but is also creating jobs, the notion that we would go backwards on that makes no sense to me at all.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the presumptive Republican candidate for the White House.

Obama said his administration is also advocating construction of new transmission lines to carry power from Iowa to Chicago and elsewhere. Roads and bridges and ports are vital as well, he said.

“Those things help farmers and ranchers get products to market, and we could be growing our exports even more,” Obama said.

Obama said the nation’s energy needs clearly cannot be met with wind and solar power. The president said he’s a big proponent of natural gas and the pursuit of domestic oil.

“Some of what we’ve seen in terms of this shale gas can really be a boon to America, and it can be done safely,” Obama said. “The fact is that we’re actually drilling more and producing more oil than we have in a long time.”

But oil and natural gas are finite resources and the world is growing quickly, meaning the traditional sources of energy will be more expensive in coming years, the president said.

“If our economy is going to grow, and we’re not going to be dependent on other countries for energy, then we’ve got to start now to make sure that we can provide our own energy, and that means continuing oil and gas production, but it means also diversifying our energy sources,” Obama said.

The bonus: cleaner energy.

“The costs of solar and wind energy continue to come down,” Obama said. “They’re not quite yet at parity with things like coal, but they’re getting cheaper each year as we improve the technologies.”

And while wind energy may need the federal tax credit, oil companies should be jettisoned from the federal dole, Obama said.

“The fact that we’re still subsidizing the oil industry to the tune of $4 billion a year, when they are making tens of billions of dollars in profits every single year, and can afford their own research and their own development and their own production costs, that just doesn’t make sense,” Obama said. “That’s a mature industry. Let’s try to develop the new ones.”