Democrat Tom Vilsack, the former agriculture secretary and Iowa governor, made a virtual campaign sweep through the farm state last week on behalf of Joe Biden, emphasizing that the Democratic presidential nominee was a friend of ethanol.
In virtual stops in Sioux City, Mason City, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Ottumwa, and Cedar Rapids areas, he said that the Trump administration has hurt ethanol and corn producers by granting waivers to oil refiners that allow them to avoid requirements for blending ethanol into gasoline under the Renewable Fuel Standard. The contentious issue has raged for years and sparked a legal battle, but the EPA has not said if it will implement an appellate court ruling that would mostly rule out such waivers in the future.
“(The Trump administration) has granted waivers to big oil companies, which has resulted in nearly 4 billion gallons of ethanol that should’ve been produced that was not produced,” Vilsack said in an interview with KTVO in Ottumwa, Iowa. “And that meant that … farmers across this state were not able to sell up to a billion bushels of corn that would have otherwise gone into the production of that ethanol.”
Biden recently came out in favor of ethanol, the corn-based fuel that consumes about 40 percent of the corn crop in the United States. Biden’s platform also emphasizes next-generation biofuels, part of a $400 billion plan to create clean energy sources. “Developing the next generation of biofuels will be a top priority,” the campaign says. “The Biden Plan will invest in research to develop cellulosic biofuels in a manner that protects our soil and water and addresses the challenge of climate change while turning grass, crop residues, and other biomass into fuel.”
In an era of relatively low oil prices, cellulosic biofuels have failed to take off and the ethanol industry overall has been hammered by plant closures and layoffs.
Vilsack also hit Trump on the trade war with China, which has led to a sharp fall in farm exports. China, once a big importer of U.S. ethanol, promised in Phase I of a trade deal with the Trump administration that it would buy $36.6 billion worth of farm goods year. But so far U.S. exports are trailing that level.
To make up for the trade shortfall and economic pressures from the coronavirus pandemic, the administration is sending farmers subsidies forecast by the USDA to reach a record $37.2 billion this year. The major element is the $16 billion earmarked for farmers and ranchers in the stopgap Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). The subsidies, however, are expected to contract dramatically next year with a resulting fall in farm income.
“If you don’t sell a billion bushels of corn to the ethanol production facility, then you basically store it,” Vilsack said on KIMT in Mason City, Iowa. “If you have retaliatory tariffs that make it hard for you to sell to China, you store it. When you store it you bring the prices down.”
Although farmers appeared with Vilsack in the virtual tour and echoed his sentiments, Trump is still the favored candidate among farmers. A straw poll by Farm Journal on Aug. 14 found that 82 percent of respondents backed Trump. Another survey of producers by DTN/Progressive Farmer in early August found 71 percent support for Trump, down 18 points from April, but still a landslide margin.
Active farmers, however, do not make up the majority of voters in so-called farm states. Trump holds a 1.5 percentage-point lead over Biden in Iowa, according to FiveThirtyEight, though is still favored to win the state.
To read more about Biden’s rural and farm policies click here.