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Bruce Rastetter, the One Iowan Who Got Jeb Bush To Care About Hogs

He says he's not a kingmaker in Iowa politics, but ten likely presidential candidates have descended upon the state to answer his questions publicly.
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Des Moines, Iowa -- He says he’s not a kingmaker in Iowa politics.

"Not every candidate I have supported has won, so it’s hard to be a kingmaker when that doesn’t happen consistently," agriculture entrepreneur and major Republican donor Bruce Rastetter said while standing inside a massive building at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines where 900 people, a couple hundred reporters and nearly a dozen potential presidential candidates will be spending their Saturday.

All these people are there because of him, and to talk about what Rastetter wants to talk about: agriculture policy.

Waste and genetically modified foods are not your average Friday night bar conversations, and even Rastetter admits the topic is barely ever mentioned in presidential politics.

And that’s what Rastetter wants to change. He wants to ensure that the issues that are important to him are no longer ignored in national politics.

"What we want to do is get them on the record," Rastetter said of the potential presidential field.

Rastetter grew up on a farm, made millions in large-scale commercial hog farming and then continued to make a lot of money in the ethanol business. He dreamed up the idea of the Iowa Agriculture summit less than four months ago and didn’t start planning it in earnest until 60 days ago.

"The fact that he was able to pull this off," said Sherill Whisenand, a co-chair of the Polk County Republican Party said.

Craig Lang, the former head of the Iowa Farm Bureau, said a similar event was attempted numerous times in the past but it never got off the ground.

So maybe Rastetter is not a "kingmaker," but he is influential enough in Republican circles to entice most of the likely presidential candidates to spend valuable time reading up on nutrition labeling, biotechnology and trade restrictions.

"I would bet with you that these candidates have done a lot of research around ag issues that they wouldn’t have done otherwise," Lang said.

At the forum, officially titled the Iowa Agriculture Summit, ten likely candidates will be questioned for 20 minutes by Rastetter on a range of topics pertinent to corporate agriculture. Questions are to include the areas of immigration, trade agreements, renewable fuels like ethanol and rural environmental issues.

"Hopefully they won’t filibuster their way through the discussion; the expectation is that they will give answers to questions," Rastetter told NBC News Friday.

Rastetter invited all of the potential candidates, including the Democrats. None in the Democratic field will attend. Sen. Rand Paul will also be absent because he will be in Kentucky fighting for the ability to run for both senator and president at the same time. Sen. Marco Rubio cancelled just this week to attend a family wedding. Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson will also not be in attendance.

But the rest of the possible candidates will be there, including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is making his maiden trip to the first caucus state this campaign season, at Rastetter's behest.

Rastetter Who?

Rastetter is not a household name — unless, that is, you are interested in running for president as a Republican.

He is born and bred Iowan. He grew up on a farm in northeastern Iowa. More than a decade after graduating from the University of Iowa, he founded a hog farm that became one of the largest in the country. After he sold that business, he jumped in on the ethanol boom where he also built that business, Hawkeye Energy Holdings, to become one of the largest ethanol producers in the country. He sold that and now runs Summit Farms, which raises livestock.

"I think Bruce is on of the greatest commodities to come out of Iowa," Whisenand said. "He’s a normal farmer guy who loves education and loves agriculture."

While Rastetter’s income grew, so did his political contributions and his clout within Iowa Republican politics. He is responsible for convincing Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to come out of retirement and run for a fourth term in 2010. He gave Branstad $160,000 during that election, which he won.

While Rastetter stayed neutral in the 2012 presidential race, he did donate money to Republicans and is well-known for chartering a plane with a handful of other wealthy Iowa Republican donors to New Jersey to try and convince Chris Christie to run.

And in the 2014 election, he gave about $150,000 to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But with his clout also comes controversy. After Branstad won his fourth term, he appointed Rastetter to the Iowa University system’s Board of Regents, which some argue is a thank-you present for the financial assistance. As president of the Board of Regents, the changes into the system Rastetter is trying to usher in have received pushback from faculty and administration, including an effort to tie admissions to funding levels and attempts to influence what should be taught in agriculture education.

Rastetter isn’t shy about what he thinks about education. Without even being asked about it, he said, "In the education system, we need to encourage the next Norman Borlaug," who engineered the first genetically modified form of wheat.

Rastetter’s commitment to science and technology in the production of food is another reason he is criticized. Hugh Espey, executive director of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said Rastetter has thought little about the impact his corporate farming practices have on the family farm, the environment and the community.

"He's about the corporate takeover of agriculture and [his] arrogance and [his] money and power trying to control our political system,” Espey said. She said the agriculture summit is a way to "elevate his corporate ag agenda."

Opponents of Rastetter will be protesting the summit Saturday.

Rastetter, however, pushes back against his critics. He said corporate farms are not running small farms out of business.

"We’re not going back to small farms. We have the ability to use technology and science and we should," Rastetter said. He added that there's going to be "an increase in organic food production in farmers markets and that’s fine ... and there’s going to be an opportunity for organic farms, for those people who have the disposable income and want to pay more for that product and that’s great."

But he said it’s Iowa’s "moral responsibility" to "feed the world."

And he wants to hear what people vying to be the next president of the United States think about it.