Everyone’s sweating out the too-close-to-call races: Allen vs. Webb in Virginia; Burns vs. Tester in Montana; Talent vs. McCaskill in Missouri.

But I’m fixated on the contest for Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture, because the candidates, both farmers themselves, so perfectly embody their parties’ drastically different visions for the future of American agriculture.

Bill Northey, former president of the National Corn Growers Association, has an 800 acre farm where he grows corn and soybeans using conventional methods. He sees corn-based ethanol as Iowa’s salvation and defends the huge hog farms that make Iowa the nation’s leading pork producer.

Denise O’Brien grows organic fruits and vegetables on fifteen acres. Her campaign vehicle is a biodiesel-fueled school bus. O’Brien co-founded the Women, Food & Agriculture Network, whose mission is “To link and empower women to build food systems and communities that are healthy, just, and sustainable, and that promote environmental integrity." She supports the small hog farms that are less likely to pollute the air and water.

I don’t have to tell you their party affiliations. The stereotypes are so perfect it’s got the makings of a sitcom, but the outcome of this election is no laughing matter. Do we want a food chain shackled by Monsanto’s genetically modified monoculture monarchy, or a new era of small-to-medium sized family farms that would bring back biodiversity and boost the local economy in rural regions crushed by agribusiness?

A columnist for the Des Moines Register, Rekha Basu, explains why she’s backing O’Brien:

When we first contemplated a move to Iowa, we imagined a rural life like we'd had in upstate New York: a country house, milk delivered from the dairy in glass bottles, chicken bought from a nearby poultry farm and vegetables from a roadside co-op.

We hadn't completely grasped that Des Moines was city and not country, or that Iowa agriculture was almost strictly about corn, soybeans, cattle and hogs, produced on an exceptionally large scale, then shipped elsewhere.

That would explain why the corn at the grocery store came from Missouri, and the pork was no fresher or choicer than anywhere else. And despite being a soybean state, there was no Iowa tofu to be found; soybeans went to feed the livestock. It also explained why there were few full-time farmers, and why people scratched their heads when I asked about visiting a working family farm.

Iowa wasn't "farm" country culturally or economically. It was corporate-agriculture country, interests well represented by the Farm Bureau and the big producers' and growers' associations.

Sure enough, the Iowa Farm Bureau has thrown its weight behind Northey, who derides O’Brien as “an activist, a self described radical whose vision for Iowa agriculture is to return to a pre-1920’s era where everyone had 5-10 acres of fruits and vegetables and raised free-range chickens. It’s a fringe agenda, that’s not a practical vision for Iowa agriculture.”

Maybe Northey should read the article in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled “A Growing Trend: Small, Local and Organic,” which profiles the “niche” farmers who are making a good living tending a few acres of specialty crops that fetch high praise and high prices from chefs and farmers’ market aficionados.

Lynne Byczynski, editor of Growing for Market, a trade journal for small farmers, told the Washington Post that the trend is toward small farms. “…It's about attention to detail, about getting retail pricing and having relationships with customers…this has really been happening all over the country. People are managing to make a go of it."

Republicans always seem to be accusing Democrats of wanting to go back in time (see Rick Perry’s horse-and-buggy quip in yesterday’s post). Yet it’s the Republicans who cling to outdated technologies and ideologies; they’ve steadfastly opposed raising fuel efficiency standards for cars, and who can forget Trent Lott waxing nostalgic about the pre-civil rights era?

Do any of them, other than the disgraced Mark Foley, even know how to text-message? I mean, this is the party whose leader uses “the Google” on the “Internets,” which we know now, thanks to Senator Ted Stevens, Chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, is not “a big truck,” but rather “a series of tubes.”

These doughy dullards are not on the cutting edge of anything. If you want real progress, vote for a progressive. If you’re into the more medieval stuff, like torture, serfdom, and blood-sucking leeches, stick with the GOP. Do you want to live in the Dark Ages, or have you seen the light? Have you had enough?