With less than a month to go before the US presidential elections, and with the two candidates still close in the polls, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain have been courting the farming vote.

Both have taken part in a questionnaire prepared by the American Farm Bureau Federation in which they set out their priorities on issues such as farm support, international trade, alternative fuels and taxes.

Senator Obama stressed his support for the new US Farm Bill enacted earlier this year, knowing this is an area where his rival scores badly. “I support a robust safety net,” he said. “This includes traditional farm programmes, crop insurance and disaster assistance.”

palin in field

A farmer demonstrates his support for the Republicans’ Sarah Palin with this image cut into a maize crop.

In contrast, Senator McCain, who had previously called the Farm Bill “bloated and flawed”, advocated “market-driven risk management” and promised to fundamentally reform the current crop insurance programme.

He also committed to expanding foreign market access for US farmers and ranchers. “As president, I will work to ratify multilateral, regional and bilateral trade deals,” he said. “I will provide strong leadership to get the global talks back on track.”

On biofuels, Senator Obama set a goal of having 60 billion gallons of fuel from biofuels by 2022. “I’ll invest $150bn over the next 10 years in our green energy sector, creating up to five million new jobs in the process,” he enthused.

But Senator McCain sought a broader solution, demanding increased supplies of oil in the short term to bring down fuel costs. In the longer term, he called for the “aggressive development of alternative energies, like wind, solar, tidal and biofuels”. Coal, more nuclear and offshore drilling were also part of the solution.

On taxes, Senator McCain said he would exempt estates worth up to $10m from estate tax (death duty), and lower the rate to 15%. In contrast, Senator Obama thought estates should be exempt only up to $7m.

Senator McCain also pledged to keep the capital gains tax rate at 15% regardless of income, whereas Senator Obama said he would increase it to 20% for households with incomes above $250,000 a year.

Both candidates promised to reform immigration laws to provide a sustainable workforce for agriculture, while at the same time securing the country’s borders against undesirables.

They also promised agriculture a “seat at the table” when devising environmental regulation. Both said they supported a greenhouse gas “cap-and-trade” programme to combat global warming, but Senator McCain said agricultural businesses should be exempt.