Mid-September in Indiana means two things: Harvesting and politicking and sometimes they converge.
Traveling down Fulton County Road 100 North at 58 mph midmorning Wednesday, passing tan crackling cornstalks on both sides of the road, is Mel Hall, the Democratic candidate for Indiana’s 2nd District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. His Communications Director Andrew Galo is at the wheel. They are spending most of the day in Rochester.
It’s the 15th or 16th time Hall has visited here since he started campaigning against Republican incumbent Jackie Walorski, Hall later told the Rochester Kiwanis Club at a lunch meeting. The general election is Nov. 6.
Rolling over bumps in the road and moving over a smidgen for a semi-truck hauling corn, they slow and turn into Smith Family Farms, where surrounding fields have now been laid bare. Harvest started about two weeks ago.
Hall, who grew up on a 60-acre farm near Marion, is about to meet Kevin Smith, a second-generation grain farmer who, with his dad Dale, brother Dave, their wives and a third generation of sons and nephews, runs a 12,000-acre operation.
Hall’s about to get an eye-opening view of modern farming. There’s no Vote for me or I appreciate your support coming from Hall’s lips over the next 45 minutes. He fires question after question at Kevin, who answers with ease and confidence about technology, the size of the operation and even tractor pulling.
Somewhere between a morning meet-and-greet at Jarrety’s Place and the farm, Hall has changed clothing. He’s moved from a dress shirt and slacks and shiny shoes to a polo shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. He and Smith tour the farm lot. The two men are dwarfed by giant grain bins, one able to hold 625,000 bushels.
Hall’s first question for Smith is about Chinese import tariffs on American goods and how they are affecting the Smiths’ largescale farming operation. The tariff on soybeans and corn is presently 25 percent.
The tariff on soybeans hasn’t hit the Smiths yet. “We had most of our beans sold, fortunately,” Kevin said. “But a month ago I was a lot more optimistic.”
According to the business website Bloomberg, soybeans account for about 60 percent of the U.S.’s $20 billion of agricultural exports to China.
Hall noted one of every three rows of soybeans in the U.S. heads to China.
What’s just as concerning about the tariff on soybeans, Kevin said, is that he’s heard China is researching new sources of protein to replace soy. That would reduce overall demand.
Smiths put about 3,000 acres in soybeans and 5,000-6,000 acres in corn, which is currently selling for $3.20 a bushel. That’s 60 to 80 cents below production cost. Smith told Hall tariffs aren’t the cause of that, but instead carryover after two or three years of record yields.
He showed Hall an example of the technology that drives their operation. At a computer in the next room, Kevin pulls up a map of the Smith fields. He can tell exactly where his dad is harvesting at that moment.
“He needs fuel. I can see he’s at 20 percent,” Kevin noted. “ I can see all our units if they’re running on GPS.”
Dale is in a 220-acre cornfield. “I can pull up all the operations we’ve done there this year,” Kevin said, listing planter population, irrigation, a seeding map and more.
“It’s completely data-driven,” Hall notes.
Data’s his thing.
Hall worked his way through Taylor University. He then graduated from Asbury United Methodist Seminary in Kentucky and took a job as a pastor in inner-city Detroit, where there were 100-115 people in the pew each Sunday, 1,000 people a week were served by church ministries and “the underground economy was in full swing on every corner,” Hall told Kiwanians. “It was the best education I could have received.”
That lasted seven years. He moved to South Bend, where he earned a Notre Dame doctoral degree in statistics and research methods. He hooked up with professors Irwin Press and Rod Ganey, who were starting Press Ganey in the late 1980s. He eventually became CEO of the firm – which gathers patient satisfaction data from medical providers so they can improve their processes – from 2001 to 2012.
His motto, he told Kiwanians, is: “In God we trust. All others bring data.”
Kevin, Galo and Hall climb three flights of stairs into a grain dryer to see how it works and come back down to check out the control room.
“In farming, there are always a lot of uncertainties. It sounds like you’re trying to drive out the uncertainties,” Hall said.
Replied Smith: “There’s only two things you can’t control. You can’t control the markets and you can’t control the weather.”
As he left that control room Hall noticed a shovel propped against the outside wall and commented, “That’s about the only thing I recognize on this farm. I recognize the corn shovel.”
That was about to change. Just a few minutes later Hall was sitting on Dale Smith’s John Deere 530 tractor. It’s the one his dad used, he said, “a two-banger.” He admired a couple more of Dale’s antique tractors then saw Kevin’s souped up tractor for pulling competitions.
That conversation also turned to technology. It’s everywhere on the farm.
As Hall and Galo pulled away, county Democratic Chairwoman Phyllis Biddinger ahead of them, Smith headed back to the farm office, and harvest matters, more technology and data.
Hall went to Woodlawn Hospital, where he gave a 15-minute speech and answered about five questions.
He did the same thing yesterday, Galo said, and will do the same tomorrow.
“I’ve done this 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week, for 13 months,” Hall told the Kiwanians. “I can’t go to Washington assuming I can change Washington. I can change how we’re represented in this district.”
Hall said congressmen work about three days a week. He’s campaigned every day because he believes that’s how people should work, and Congress should work – full time.
At the Smith farm, work started at 7 a.m. Wednesday and Kevin guessed he would knock off between 9-10 p.m.