Presidential Candidates Cultivate Farm Support

8/25/2012 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

Firestine, Ebert Named to Romney Ag Committee

With an appointment to presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Farmers and Ranchers for Romney Coalition, Mike Firestine, ag lender with Fulton Bank and prominent supporter of Pennsylvania agriculture, hopes the Keystone State’s farmers will get a bigger voice at the table in a future Romney administration.

“I think the majority of the time, ag is looked at as being in Iowa, California, Texas. But the state is a major player in ag as well. We need a voice in Pennsylvania,” Firestine said by phone Monday.

He was one of 33 people named to the coalition’s national advisory board on Thursday last week.

Rick Ebert, vice president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, was also named to the board.

Firestine’s role will be representing the Romney campaign at various functions along with bringing Romney up to speed on issues affecting farmers in the state.

He appeared at last week’s Ag Progress Days, with former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Connor, who was stumping for Romney. Connor is one of the coalition’s six national chairmen.

Firestine said Romney is getting familiar with the issues and has made an effort to reach out to farmers and members of previous presidential administrations with knowledge of agricultural issues.

He said he hopes a Romney administration will address a couple of issues that have been on his mind — elimination of the federal estate (death) tax, immigration reform and government regulations.

“One thing the governor understands is that ag is the No. 1 industry in the U.S., and I was impressed with the fact that he understands ag is overregulated,” he said.

“The regulation is a major issue. We are completely overregulated. We have to take a good hard look at the form of regulation and use a more commonsense approach to it,” he said.

Firestine joins a number of prominent officials named to Romney’s ag coalition.

They include ag commissioners and secretaries of agriculture from 13 states, including Iowa and Kansas; a number of former U.S. secretaries of agriculture, including Ed Schafer and Sen. Mike Johans of Nebraska, who both served under President George W. Bush; and numerous heads of ag organizations and companies, including J.D. Alexander, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh Produce Association, and Chris Policinski, CEO of Land O’Lakes.

Ebert, who milks 80 Holsteins and farms 450 acres of corn, soybeans and hay in Blairsville, Westmoreland County, said he was excited when he got the invitation to join the advisory board.

“I think Gov. Romney is going to move things in a different direction. Just being involved in agriculture and seeing all of the regulations coming out these last couple of years and Gov. Romney saying we need to pull back these regulations,” Ebert said.

While Romney’s ag support appears well organized, support for President Barack Obama from the ag sector has been a little more subdued.

The Obama campaign recently started a Rural Americans for Obama group.

The Penn Ag Democrats, started under Keith Bierly, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board, held its annual picnic at Ag Progress Days, where about 60 people attended, according to the group’s current chairman, Mark McCracken, current Clearfield County commissioner and candidate for Pennsylvania State House.

McCracken said the event was attended by numerous local and state political candidates, but no representative from Obama’s campaign showed up.

Having a recognition of issues pertinent to the farming community, he said, will be key to getting Democrats out to the voting booths on Nov. 6.

“I think what we need to see here at the rural level is that they understand how important rural America is to the economy and the food supply,” McCracken said.

Bierly, who left the milk marketing board last January and now runs his own political consulting business in Centre County, said when it comes to the farming community, Democrats have always faced an uphill battle since most farmers align themselves with more conservative candidates.

“About one in five farmers I’ve met are Republican,” Bierly said. “I think the bigger question for rural people is whether Obama is representing them.”

Dennis Wolff, former Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture and partner at Versant Strategies, a political consulting firm based in Harrisburg, said he thinks President Obama and USDA have done a good job, especially in the face of challenging budgets and weather-related circumstances in the Midwest.

“I think President Obama has done just fine. I lived through tough budgets. It’s hard to do anything while cutting budgets. I think their plan is a good plan. I think President Obama has done an acceptable job with the challenges he came in under,” Wolff said.

Still, Wolff acknowledged the need to re-evaluate regulations on farm businesses, for instance, providing funding for livestock operations to come into compliance with new environmental rules.

He also said the passage of a Farm Bill, with the realization that direct payments are likely gone and a new emphasis on crop insurance programs, will lay out the blueprint for agriculture for the next five years.

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