Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa. He is author of the book, “Storm Lake: Change, Resilience, and Hope from America’s Heartland.”

When Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and her Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield first met to debate a few weeks ago, the spectacle was unpleasant to watch. The two women accused each other of being corporate tools, and each demanded an apology in return. Moderator David Yepsen was forced to stop the shouting and ask: “Is this the way Iowans expect their senator to act?”

Not much to learn there. But — whoa, Nellie — the candidates had a second debate Thursday night that will not be soon forgotten. Moderator Ron Steele asked Greenfield what the break-even price of a bushel of corn was for an Iowa farmer. Three dollars and 68 cents, she replied, adding that it depends on the individual farmer’s cost structure. Right answer! She can expect a gold star from the Iowa State University extension service.

Steele then asked Ernst to state the break-even price for soybeans. Ernst wasn’t sure. “You grew up on a farm. You should know this,” Steele said. Ernst guessed: Maybe $5.50 per bushel? “Would you care to give it another try?” asked co-moderator Matt Breen. No thanks, Ernst replied which was probably wise. The break-even on soybeans is around $10 per bushel.

Most farmers who intend to plant next year can quote the markets by the hour. They know their market prices, their subsidy levels, their break-even costs. A rule of running for statewide office in Iowa is to know corn and soybean prices and be facile with the donut hole for Medicare.

Not knowing the price of beans is our version of the once-standard presidential debate question: How much is a gallon of milk? Greenfield’s ads — and there have been plenty, with more than $155 million spent so far on the race — offer the premise that “Joni changed when she went to Washington.” Being out of touch with ag prices will play right into that charge.

The second Iowa debate is a reminder that, whatever the sad state of the presidential debates this year, voters have been able to watch robust back-and-forths this fall in Senate races from Maine to Arizona to Kentucky. People expect them and, for the most part, the candidates show up. In the Maine Senate race, the candidates have debated three times. Smart pols know that voters want to see you fight for it. It’s a reflection of what you might do in a tougher situation. Debates matter.

And can have consequences. The price of soybeans isn’t just a number to know; it sits at the center of a knotty farm-belt fiasco. Iowa used to be China’s main source for soy, which helped to keep bean prices up. But President Trump’s trade fights with Beijing ended that run; the Chinese are now sourcing their soy primarily from Brazil. Which is why the price here has dropped and why the federal government has had to step in — to the tune of more than $60 billion — with massive subsidies to keep farms afloat.

Not doing debates matters, too. Northwest Iowa Republican Randy Feenstra, who beat Rep. Steve King in a June primary for his House seat, refused to debate his opponent on the ballot in November, Democrat J.D. Scholten. As a result, Scholten got a half-hour by himself on Iowa PBS to extol his virtues and remind folks that Feenstra accepted campaign donations from Smithfield Foods, a meat processor owned by a Chinese conglomerate.

The two men are in a dead heat, according the most recent Des Moines Register poll, and Scholten outraised Feenstra nearly 2 to 1 in the third quarter. Feenstra should have debated. Not debating raises questions about whether you’ve got game.

It’s true elsewhere. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham declined to debate challenger Jaime Harrison earlier this month in South Carolina, and the state’s top newspaper hammered him for dodging. Trump skipped the second debate with Joe Biden because, he said, organizers insisted amid covid-19 that the debate be a virtual meeting. As Trump has slipped in the polls, I bet he’d like to have that decision back.

And let’s not forget the folks who make these things happen. Ernst won her seat six years ago when her opponent, Bruce Braley, made fun of a farmer, Iowa’s own Chuck Grassley, for sitting on the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Braley made the comment to a bunch of lawyers at a private fundraiser. Damn cellphones.)

Ernst, by contrast, made her blunder in full public view, on statewide television. Were it not for Steele asking the question, that moment never occurs.

Read more: