Iowans in Congress talk agriculture priorities

In interviews with The Daily Iowan, members of Iowa’s congressional delegation spoke about agriculture policies and how they plan to work with the new administration.



Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, sits down for an interview with The Daily Iowan on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2020. Only a day after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, Grassley discussed upcoming work and the possible impeachment of former President Donald Trump.

Julia Shanahan, Politics Editor

Members of Iowa’s congressional delegation say they hope to work with the Biden administration and Democratic majority in Congress on agriculture policies that, they say, flourished under former President Trump’s administration.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said in Daily Iowan interviews that Trump’s Phase 1 trade deal with China and expanding the use of biofuels benefited Iowa economically, and that they hope to continue to build on that work.

“This president for the first time helped farmers by saying the government created a problem, we’re going to help you as a result of it,” Grassley said of Trump’s trade deal with China.

Trump made four visits to Iowa in 2020 and often touted his administration’s agricultural policies. Trump won 53 percent of the vote in Iowa in November 2020, with other Republican candidates throughout the state riding on Trump’s coattails. Two districts flipped red and Republicans grew their majority in the Iowa Legislature.

Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack — a former Iowa governor — has already had conversations with Ernst on how they can work together on policies that affect Iowans. Vilsack was also the Secretary of Agriculture under Barack Obama.

“We’ll just have to push really hard and make sure that Secretary Vilsack is keeping Iowans in mind, Midwesterners in mind,” Ernst said. “A little different dynamic, but at least we know we have some partners that we should be able to rely on in the administration as well.”

U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, Iowa’s lone Democratic representative, told The Daily Iowan she wants sustainable agriculture to be a priority. Axne, who is on the House Agriculture Committee, said she cosponsored a bill that would compensate farmers who sequester carbon.

“There’s so much opportunity if we look outside of the normal conventions of doing things that can help us not just open up new markets for trade around the world… But we need new products,” Axne said. “Iowa is lacking in processing capabilities across the board because …  we’ve been forced into essentially a corn and soybean state.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, sits down for an interview with The Daily Iowan on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2020. Only a day after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, Ernst discussed upcoming work and the possible impeachment of former President Donald Trump. (Katie Goodale)


Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He signed a Phase 1 trade agreement in January 2020 that cut some U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods with the promise that China would purchase more manufactured and agricultural products from the U.S.

This deal was championed by Republicans as a success after years of negotiations that made it significantly more difficult for farmers to sell their products with China — a top customer for many corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest. Trump first imposed tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese products in 2018, and China responded by imposing $50 billion in retaliatory tariffs. The trade war went on until the agreement was signed last year.

The financial hit farmers took was made up for by large amounts of federal aid — in 2019, federal aid accounted for 25 percent of farm net income nationwide.

Grassley acknowledged that farmers were hurt in the process, but said hardball tactics were the only way to get China to negotiate new trade policies.

“You can argue over the tariff policies of [Trump], the extent to which they hurt agriculture, and blame the (former) president’s policies for that,” Grassley said. “It happens, when he started out against China, I thought it was the wrong policy. After a couple years, I realized he would have never got China to the table to negotiate the trade agreement that was signed a year ago right now, if he hadn’t taken those actions.”

Biden’s “Plan for Rural America” says “Trump’s much vaunted China trade strategy ended up contributing to a  ” and that “Biden’s comprehensive manufacturing and innovation strategy will marshal the resources of the federal government in ways that we have not seen since World War II.”

RELATED: Iowa’s U.S. senators vote against Trump impeachment trial

Biden’s plan would make a $400 billion investment that along with his green infrastructure plan, would power new demand for American products, Biden Administration officials argue. His plan also says that the federal government would provide capital for small manufacturers so they can compete in the market and grow bio-based manufacturing to bring jobs back to the U.S.

“We do need to continue to develop trade agreements around the world, make sure that our products are being pushed to other nations,” Ernst said. “… And we can start to see us move away from such large amounts of aid for farmers and get to more of that free market approach where they’re able to take their goods to market, they’re able to get deals overseas.”

Timeline by Molly Milder/The Daily Iowan

Trump also negotiated the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement, or USMCA, to replace NAFTA. Proponents of the agreement say that the USMCA creates more balanced trade in the region and supports high-paying jobs in the U.S. The new agreement strengthens the market for corn and soybeans, according to an August 2019 statement from the White House.

U.S. Representative Cindy Axne speaks during Progress Iowa’s Cornfeed event on Tuesday, September 2, 2020. This is the sixth annual cornfeed event for Progress Iowa. (Ryan Adams)


Trump approved the use of year-round E-15 in May 2019, something that originally could not be used in the summer months. E-15 is a blend of ethanol and gasoline that some people say burns cleaner than 100 percent oil-derived gasoline. Because E-15 is made with corn, the industry provides a year-round demand for one of Iowa’s top products.

Some environmentalists say increasing the amount of ethanol in a gasoline blend increases greenhouse gas emissions and waterway pollution from chemical runoff, making ethanol a complicated topic for Democrats and Republicans on the campaign trail.

In 2019, motorists purchased in Iowa a record amount, in gallons, of E-15 gasoline. According to the Iowa Department of Revenue 2019 Retailers Fuel Gallons Annual Report, more than 47 million gallons of E-15 were purchased in Iowa.

U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, claimed that some provisions from the Green New Deal would be devastating to Iowa’s ethanol industry. She said Congress should not implement a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to addressing climate change, and that government mandates are not the way to do it.

“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working on policy to help protect our environment, but we do need to be cognizant of the damage that that could do,” Hinson said.

Biden has not endorsed the Green New Deal legislation, but his climate plan does call for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, like the Green New Deal. Trump and Ernst have made claims that Biden’s climate plan would put an end to animal agriculture and eliminate gas-powered cars, but PolitiFact Iowa found those claims to be false.

Biden’s “Plan for Rural America” says that his administration would expand opportunities to make things like fabrics, chemicals, and other materials using agricultural products, like corn stock and manure. This would be a part of Biden’s plan to create a low-carbon manufacturing sector in every state, and the federal government would provide “significant funding” to help states plan. The plan did not specify how much funding it would require.

Biden promised voters on the campaign trail that if elected, he would promote and advance the use of renewable fuels and ethanol. He also attacked Trump’s record on ethanol, calling Trump’s move in 2020 to support the ethanol industry transparently political.

“I would hope that we would be able to work together on ethanol and biodiesel and the 43,000 jobs that are connected with that,” Grassley said.