Every once in a great while, a clarifying debate moment still transpires that encapsulates the stark differences between two candidates. That's exactly what happened Thursday night in the debate between incumbent GOP Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and her Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield. The fact that the question centered on the fundamentals of farming in a state with a proud agricultural tradition was even more telling.
Greenfield was actually queried first in the exchange about the "break-even price” for a bushel of corn in Iowa this week. Without hesitation, Greenfield responded that a bushel of corn was going for about $3.68 to $3.69 in the state right now.
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"And break-even really just depends on the amount of debt someone has," she explained. "I suspect there's farmers that breaking even at that price, however, if their yields are down 50%, that's certainly not going to cover it for them." Greenfield finished by noting that commodity prices have been too low for too long. "They've been going out of business prices," she said.
Whew! That's like an entire business 101 class for farmers right there: here's the price; not bad, but if you're leveraged too much, it may not be cutting it; and the whole equation is compounded by the fact that commodities like corn have been underpriced for a sustained period of time.
"That's correct," moderator Ron Steele responded. Great, thanks for summing that up so neatly, Greenfield. Onward. Sen. Ernst, what's the break-even price for soybeans?
Ernst filibustered at first, choosing to instead discuss the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. When she finished, Steele responded, "I might have missed it, but I don't think you answered my question: What's the break-even price for soybeans in Iowa?"
"You grew up on a farm, you should know this," he offered. Ouch.
Ernst decided her best option was to revisit Greenfield's corn response as a dodge to bypass the soybean pricing she clearly didn't know. "I think you had asked about corn, and it depends on what the inputs are, but probably about $5.50," Ernst said.
"Well, you're a couple dollars off, I think here, because it's $10.05,” Steele said, referring to soybean pricing, “but we'll move on to something else.”
Oops. Time to point fingers. "And I don't think Miss Greenfield answered either," Ernst charged.
"She actually did with the price of corn," clarified another moderator. "We had asked for the price of soybeans from you, Senator. You want to take another crack at it?"
But given a third chance, Ernst doubled down on corn. "No, thank you,” she said, adding, “You said, the breakeven for corn is $10.50? I don't think that's correct.”
Nope, it's not. Because the right answer on corn was $3.68-$3.69, as Greenfield had already said and the moderator confirmed.
The early part of the debate had been plagued by technical glitches, and Ernst tried to play it off like she hadn't accurately heard the question, but she had three clear cracks at it and still took a pass.
Sorry, you're out, Senator.
Ernst’s debate wipeout produced some headline classics like this one from Yahoo News: “Debate in crucial Senate race shows Iowa's Joni Ernst doesn't know beans about soy.”
Matt Hildreth, Executive Director of the progressive group RuralOrganizing.org, told Daily Kos the fumble was disqualifying. “Joni Ernst doesn't know the break-even price on soybeans. It's no wonder why she supports President Trump's Ag agenda,” he said. “Farmers live and die by the break-even price and as the moderator said, a senator from Iowa should know this.”
This was the third and last debate heading into the final stretch of an unexpectedly down-to-the-wire race. Recent polling in the state has given Democrat Greenfield a several-point advantage. Thursday's debate doesn't seem to have done Ernst any favors in terms of changing that trend—if the trend is indeed accurate.
Better yet, watch Ernst: