Moments before, her opponent, Theresa Greenfield, responded to the moderator’s question without hesitation about the break-even price of corn by citing the current price of corn. Ernst—who currently serves on the senate committee for agriculture, nutrition, and forestry, and like Greenfield grew up on a farm—evaded the question about soybeans then gave an estimate for the price of corn. Even that was off the mark.

The break-even price is a key economic figure in agriculture indicating the lowest price that will ensure a farmer turns a profit on a particular crop. However, it can vary wildly farm to farm. The size of a farm, how much the land yields, operating expenses, debt payments, farm subsidies, trade wars, weather, as well as events like this year’s derecho (an extreme in-land storm which damaged an estimated 10 million acres) all change an individual farmer’s break-even price.

Why corn and soy are important to Iowa’s economy

Both soy and corn are major contributors to the state’s GDP, exports, employment, and identity as a major agricultural producer for the US.

Iowa devotes more land to soy and corn than anywhere else

The state is first in the country in terms of acres used for corn and second for amount of farmland used for soybeans.

Iowa has high concentrations of farm workers

More than 200,000 people were employed on farms in the state in 2017, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s census. Iowa has some of the highest proportions of people employed in farm equipment operation, and farm management in the country. The agriculture industry directly or indirectly employs 17% of Iowa’s workforce. That’s a lot of voters.

The US relies on Iowa for corn and soybeans

Corn is Iowa’s top crop. Soybeans are second. Agriculture comprises 27% of the state’s GDP.

Joni Ernst’s farm-focused campaign

Ernst has used her family’s background farming corn, soybeans, and hogs as part of her re-election campaign. Despite her personal and professional experience in the industry, her inability to deliver an accurate answer during the debate was quickly recognized as a huge blind-spot about the daily reality for thousands of Iowans.

“What you can sell your corn or soy for really tells us about the health and wealth of not just Iowa’s economy, but also the efficacy of trade policies and our food industry,” says Lyz Lenz, a journalist, author, and former columnist for the Cedar Rapids-Gazette.

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