Photo of Iowa farmer Al Giese after a Steve King town hall.
The White House was hashing out the details late this week of a possible deal to repair some of the damage the renewable fuels industry sustained this year from President Donald Trump’s earlier decisions on ethanol.
But it may be too little, too late for both Iowa corn growers and the President’s own reelection hopes here.
Anger in farm country has been boiling over for months after Trump’s EPA approved yet another round of waivers for oil refineries, exempting them from ethanol requirements in their fuel. The 31 latest waivers took billions of gallons of ethanol out of production, causing several Midwestern ethanol plants to shutter or suspend business.
“There’s anger now. There’s anger,” Al Giese, who owns Prairie Feed and Trucking, a major Midwest marketer of ethanol co-product feeds, told Starting Line after a Steve King town hall. “And [Trump] best not assume he’s got the Midwest locked up. He’s gotta have us to get reelected.”
Iowa’s federal delegation has heard an earful from farmers and ethanol producers during their town halls across the state this summer. Republicans Joni Ernst, Chuck Grassley and King have expressed their dismay at Trump’s actions as Iowans plead with them to change Trump’s mind.
The current goal is to reallocate billions of gallons of ethanol recently waived from refinery usage into future Renewable Fuel Standard years, starting in the 2020 RFS. But Iowa farmers warn that won’t even begin to make up the financial damage they’ve suffered right now.
“It’s a crisis. It’s not something that can be solved with a reallocation in 2021,” said Giese at a King forum in Milford, Iowa in late August.
Giese has been showing up to Republican town hall events in Northwest Iowa to warn them about the growing revolt in farm country.
“We do not have time to solve the latest crisis that unfortunately our president created. We had three ethanol plants shut down in the last three weeks,” Giese, who farms with his brother in O’Brien County, told King. “We’re losing this industry.”
One day later, Giese would tell Ernst a similar message in Spirit Lake.
And although Giese typically votes for Republicans and thanked both Ernst and King for their help on biofuels, his vote won’t be going for Trump in 2020 if things don’t change substantially.
“[Trump] basically assumes he’s got Iowa wrapped up in the next election,” Giese told King. “He better rethink that. He will not be reelected if he doesn’t carry the Midwest. You know that and I know that. Better get that message to him.”
If this story of wavering farm country support sounds all too familiar, you may want to consider the circumstances.
Electoral doom and gloom was predicted for Republicans at the start of Trump’s trade war in 2018, when soybean prices became a casualty of the tariffs with China. But Iowa’s rural counties still largely went deep red in the midterms, with Democrats’ wins here only coming about due to huge urban turnout and a shifting party loyalties in the suburbs.
Giese explained that’s because farmers are largely sympathetic of the reasoning behind the trade war.
“You always have to look at the big picture,” he said. “China violates all the rules … We have to deal with that. Three past presidents chose not to deal with it, and it’s become a huge issue. I think farmers understand that, they’re with the President, they’re willing to endure some pain to get through that and get that straightened out.”
But the nonstop refinery waivers that have decimated the ethanol industry is another matter entirely. That’s a blatant broken promise from Trump, one that only serves to benefit the oil industry.
“When you come back to renewable fuels and the RFS, that is law,” Giese said. “This is supposed to be the party that believes in the rule of law. That is being bastardized all over the place and we’re going to lose a good chunk of this industry.”
Giese traveled to Council Bluffs earlier in the year to thank Trump at an event there for his administration’s decision on year-round E15. But any advantage Iowa farmers got with that deal was more than wiped out with later waivers.
That has many conservative voters in farm country rethinking their vote on the presidential line of the ballot in the 2020 election. While they may continue to vote for Republicans down-ballot, they may skip over Trump at the top of the ticket.
“I have a very significant network in ag business, the renewable fuels industry and among farmers — they are changing their attitude with this situation, and it’s being driven by the behavior with the RFS,” Giese said. “My circles are generally in the conservative arena. What I hear is, ‘I can’t probably vote for anybody I’ve seen on the other side. I will sit it out.’ Which has the same effect.”
Giese noted that many of his friends would like to keep voting Republican at the presidential level for all the other beliefs of the party, but that the wholesale destruction of their industry makes that near impossible.
“I probably wouldn’t be worse off with a Democratic president in agriculture and agribusiness,” Giese said he hears from some farmers. “This is about as bad as it can get … There’s references now to the Jimmy Carter era. That’s dangerous to this president. I hope he recognizes that.”
by Pat Rynard