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Civil Eats: J.D. Scholten Wants to Transform Midwestern Farm Politics

In the campaign video J.D. Scholten released last summer, the camera finds him with his hands in the Iowa dirt. The 40-year-old paralegal and former minor-league baseball player had launched his second campaign for Congress in as many years, and it was clear—from this direct nod to agrarianism, as well as the footage of cows on pasture and children in grain fields—that Scholten planned to make agriculture a central feature of the campaign. But not in the way you might expect.

Rather than appealing to the status quo ag lobby in the state, Scholten is working to beat Republican Representative Steve King—the same Steve King who recently asked: What’s offensive about White Nationalism?—by appealing to those who want to see agriculture in the state change. Scholten talks openly about wanting to break up the big companies that control everything from meat packing to seed and fertilizers, and he wants to incentivize more local food production in a state that imports the bulk of its food, despite raising 2.5 billion bushels of corn in 2019.

Scholten lost to King by just 3.5 percent in 2018, and he’s pretty confident that he can win this time. Civil Eats talked to him about agricultural consolidation, the impact of COVID-19 on his state, and his hopes for the future of farming.

What it is about your personal background that has made food and agriculture such an important part of your campaign? Get the latest articles in your inbox.

I’m a fifth-generation Iowan, and the first to be raised in town. My grandpa on my dad’s side sold seed and feed to local farmers. Mom’s dad was a farmer. And this neck of the woods in Iowa, it’s all about agriculture. The 4th District is the second most agriculture-producing district in America.

Right after the 2016 election, [I came home for] Thanksgiving. My grandma wasn’t doing so well and the last thing she told me was, “You need to move back to Iowa and take care of the farm.” That just hit home. I moved back home and that snowballed into running for Congress.

Where were you living at the time? 

I was in Seattle. And it was amazing to see the agriculture out there as well. And the diversity, whether it’s the valley up north from there or the apples and the vineyards. It was eye-opening for me from an agricultural standpoint.

But I came back here [and ran against Steve King]. And so much of our campaign was just getting out there and I put 35,000 miles on my personal vehicle. Winnebago RVs are made in this district, so I bought a used one, threw our logo on the side, and drove 25,000 more miles going to all 39 counties. When you do that, you really understand that the common thread in a lot of these smaller communities that were so agriculture-based for so long is [the products of] mass consolidation.

We have two farm-to-table restaurants in the whole district. Sioux City doesn’t have a food co-op, and we have farmers not making a dime. And so many of our small towns are struggling to even keep their local grocer. We have Dollar General coming in and undercutting them and it doesn’t sell fresh meats or fresh produce. So, you scratch your head and ask: Who are we doing this for?

Ninety percent of the food in Iowa, even though we’re such an agricultural state, is imported. Things don’t add up right now. We’ve had decades of prioritizing efficiency and get-big-or-get-off-the-farm policies and ultimately our food system is failing all three parts of the equation: the consumers, the workers, and the farmers.

Let’s talk a little bit about Steve King’s approach to agriculture and how yours would be different.

King has been there for 18 years. And you’d think with that longevity, he’d be in leadership. But right now he’s not even on the Ag Committee. [The Sioux City Journallast week reported that King is in negotiations to be added back to the Ag Committee and others.] But what we’ve seen throughout the years is that he talks about his selfish Ideology of Western civilization and all that stuff, but the reality is our agriculture system has become more and more foreign.

So despite all his “America-first” chest thumping, the reality is we’re so concentrated. We have the pork industry where three companies control 66 percent of the market share. In beef, 88 percent is controlled by four corporations. One in four hogs in Iowa is owned by a Chinese company. And [King] hasn’t stood up against that consolidation. He allowed the new USMCA [trade agreement] to be passed without country-of-origin labeling [COOL], which has hurt our beef producers. And he’s stood there and just watched GIPSA be dismantled, so our farmers don’t have a level playing field right now.

And so one of the biggest things I’ve talked about for a couple of years now is enforcing our antitrust laws, especially in agriculture. That’s the first step. The second step is to create infrastructure for regional food hubs so we can have a system that we can grow markets from. On a local level, I’m talking farm-to-nursing home, farm-to-hospital, farm-to-school, and farm-to-military. If we create that localism and regionalism and allow the markets to grow, it will be better for our rural communities. It’s an investment in way more jobs locally. And we can invest in that for pennies on the dollar. There needs to be some shakeup of what’s going on now.

Scholten spent much his first campaign visiting all of Iowa’s 39 counties.

Country of origin labeling—that’s where we’re seeing a lot of movement, and King actually has been on the on the floor talking against it. But if I want to have a steak and I see something that says Iowa Beef, I want it to be from Iowa.

What’s your response to what’s happening as coronavirus has spread in meatpacking plants in Iowa and across the middle of the country? 

The warning sign in all of this happened last year with the [meatpacking] fire in Kansas. When that processing plant went down, it disrupted the whole market. It’s so concentrated. When we have 50 plants producing 98 percent of our beef in America, if one of those plants shuts down, we don’t have the flexibility or the adaptability to change the food system. And so that’s what we’re seeing in a lot of this. When my grandparents farmed back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, there were over 9,000 slaughterhouses [in the U.S.] and now there’s about 1,000.

And I understand some of them aren’t going to make it, and technology grows and you shrink. But to this level? I mean, [meat production] is more concentrated now than when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, and we had this same battle a hundred years ago.

And people are getting sick and yet they’ve been asked to return to work. 

Right. And you see the power of the [meat] industry when the president didn’t have the executive order for PPE, but he made an executive order to keep our meat packing plants open. That’s an amazing amount of power.

In order for us to continue with these plants, we absolutely have to have that protection. We have to have continued testing. We have to have paid sick leave. What’s happening right now is so inhumane. We have a case in Denison, Iowa, about an hour and a half away from here. It’s been a meatpacking town for a long, long time; they have two plants there. And the mayor requested an expansion of testing and targeted testing and she was denied by the Governor. And this is a county that has over 100 people who have tested positive and is considered open. It’s nuts!

For the last decade there’s been a disconnect between what many consumers want—more localized food production, more supports for young producers and alternative production models—and what the House Agriculture Committee funds in the farm bill. And most of the current ag committee members are in very close contact with the folks at the top of the industry. If you’re elected, what would it take for someone like you to actually achieve any power on that committee? 

Since the last cycle, because of who I get to run against and the controversial aspect of that, I have a larger voice than the regular candidate running for Congress. I also have a louder voice because of the Iowa caucuses. I was able to work on five or six of the [Democratic] presidential candidates’ rural policies last year and those have been some of the most progressive platforms we’ve seen in the food discussion for a long time.

For decades, presidential candidates would come to Iowa and talk about ethanol. That’s it. This time, we heard them talk about climate change and how our food system is tied into that. And I’d like to think I had a little bit to do with that. But this is where we need more of what I like to refer to as “Dirt Road Democrats.” I’m trying to connect with farmers, but also folks who see the end of the process as consumers. They may not see where we’re coming from here. And I’m trying to connect the dots a little bit.

I talked to Jane Kleeb [Head of the Democratic Party in Nebraska] recently and that seems to be her project as well. There do seem to be a number of rural folks who have felt alienated by both parties. 

We got 25,000 more votes than there are Democrats in this district in the last cycle—and it was a midterm, which tends to be more conservative. So, I think there is this huge potential, especially in the Democratic party. It’s what I like to call the Dollar General Coalition. I mean, you have these rural areas that are just being decimated, but you have these inner-city areas that also have food deserts. And if we could connect the two using regional food hubs, we could have food assistance programs with quality food made locally—and that’s a game-changer for some of these communities.

J.D. Scholten at West Street Market in Manning, Iowa. The local grocery store closed last year and the town rallied together to help it re-open.

But you would need a lot more people in rural areas to actually be growing food instead of corn and soy for animal feed, right? 

Yes, but it’s all policy driven. And with the COVID-19 crisis, there’s opportunity. When we come out of this, I think there will be a nation looking for change. You also have farmers here in Iowa who’ve had six consecutive years of low commodity prices.

Which is also a big motivator to change.

Farmers are some of the most resilient people. They’re my ancestors; they’re stubborn as can be. But when you present them with a challenge, they’re up for it. I mean look at [the sudden advent of the ethanol industry]—and how people adapted to that. If we challenged them to create and invest in these alternatives, the potential is huge.

I see what we’re doing as a nation, and there’s no long-term vision. We’re moving more urban. In this district people are moving to Des Moines, Omaha, and Minneapolis. But at some point we’re going to hit our limit there and we’re going have to have quality rural areas. How do we get there? We go back to the basics of what created these regional rural areas to begin with.

Diverse family farms.

Exactly. Agriculture.

I was in Minnesota this winter and organizers there have been very focused on finding ways to respond to the farm crisis ther. Are you seeing a farm crisis in Iowa, and if so, how is it being talked about?

It’s not being talked about that way, but it 100 percent is [a crisis]. It’s different than what it was in the ‘80s. It’s more of a slow torture. I mean, we’ve seen bankruptcies are up 20 percent to an all-time high and the farm debt is the highest in the nation. I have a friend who has a Century Farm and the dad just retired and the son was about ready to take over. The dad told him, “There’s no money in this; you’re going to work in town.” And so he works at a John Deere dealership. The kid wants to farm! And you hear stories like that all throughout the district.

You mentioned the recent presidential candidates’ surprising focus on soil health and regenerative agriculture. There are several outspoken voices pushing for more attention to regenerative practices in Iowa at the moment, including farmer Matt Russell of Coyote Run Farm. Do you want to say anything about those efforts? 

I went to the debate in Iowa and Matt Russell was sitting two rows ahead of the former secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack. And it was just such a visually impactful changing of the guard, and a [symbol] of the way the caucus was talked about when it came to agriculture.

Practical Farmers of Iowa, [a group that works to help farmers plant cover crops and more diverse rotations] was considered a radical group like a decade ago. And now, I mean, they’re one of the fastest-growing agriculture groups out there, and we’re seeing more folks out there doing similar work.

And again, it’s all policy driven. If we incentivize it, farmers are going to adapt to it. And so I’m hopeful that we can move in the right direction on this. But it also goes back to antitrust. I feel like the powers that be aren’t allowing for things to change or incentivizing [regenerative practices]. It’s not because people don’t want it, it’s because there are powers working against it. And that’s where we need to enforce our antitrust laws and make it a level playing field.

Is there anything else you want Civil Eats readers to know about the changes you’re hoping to make?

Our campaign gets a lot of attention because we’re opposing Steve King, but it’s so much more. This is going to transform the way we eat, and hopefully the way our children will eat. We had this battle one hundred years ago and we’re right back where we started. For climate reasons, for health reasons, there’s so much opportunity coming out of COVID-19 to change and improve the food system and make sure that we remain a secure nation because we can feed ourselves.

Written by Twilight Greenaway