Touring an ethanol plant has become a rite of passage for candidates hoping to do well in the Iowa caucuses, not unlike standing in front of a stack of hay bales or flipping chops at the Iowa State Fair. It is the equivalent of kissing a baby.
Bill Couser, a farmer and board member at Lincolnway Energy in Nevada, Iowa, is one of the people making this a top issue.
“I’m pretty passionate about agriculture,” explains Couser. “This is an important issue. I mean, what is an old cattlefeeder going to do?”
In 2016 Couser tried to talk to Republican candidates.
“Ted Cruz got to where he would run away when he saw me,” Couser says.
This time around Couser has joined with several other farmers and politicians to form Biofuels Vision 2020, a coalition aimed at educating candidates in both parties about renewable fuels. The group was only recently formed, but its website (www.biofuelsvision.com) includes statements from many of the candidates about their stance regarding biofuels.
Former Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge is also involved in the ethanol push this caucus season. Judge has joined with former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in forming Focus on Rural America (www.focusonruralamerica.com), a group aimed at educating the many Democratic presidential candidates this caucus season and working with them on rural economic issues.
“We spent quite a bit of time looking at what happened (in the 2016 presidential campaign, when rural voters overwhelmingly cast votes for Republicans) and tried to look at what rural people were thinking about,” Judge said. “… There was a feeling that we’ve been left behind in rural areas … that the economic boom has passed rural America by.”
And Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, has seen this all before. Shaw has worked for several election cycles to try to get candidates to visit ethanol plants and learn about the ethanol and biodiesel industries. He has tried to educate them and also to get them to go on record about specific policies.
For example, ethanol supporters got then candidate Donald Trump to go on the record as not only being pro-ethanol in 2016 but as supporting the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).
Those promises are important now in trying to get Trump to reverse some of his administration’s policies regarding hardship waivers it has granted to oil refineries. Farm organizations have been continually reminding Trump of those campaign promises in recent months.
Shaw makes no bones about his hope Trump reverses the actions of his own Environmental Protection Agency and changes the proposed rule regarding those waivers this fall. But he says the combination of those waivers and the ongoing trade war with China certainly gives the many Democratic presidential candidates an opportunity this time around.
The last round of refinery waivers hit farmers and ethanol proponents hard, Shaw says.
“That was a real tipping point,” he says. “It was like a two by four to the forehead.”
And so the various groups continue to work to get the many Democratic candidates and any Republican challengers to the president to visit ethanol plants in the state and to talk about biofuel issues. A number of candidates have already done so. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was one of the first, which Shaw says was no surprise, since Klobuchar represents a Midwestern state with a strong ethanol industry.
“She’s a rockstar on biofuel issues,” he says.
He adds that other candidates, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have also been strong on biofuel issues. And former vice president Joe Biden just visited an ethanol plant near Dyersville last week.
Judge stresses that her organization is also talking to candidates about issues such as rural broadband access, education and health care, as well as jobs that pay a decent wage. But a strong biofuel industry is a key part of the message.
She says any candidate that wants to win in Iowa or nationally in the general election needs to talk to farmers and rural voters. And to attract rural voters and win back rural states for their party, they need to learn about biofuels and have a policy on important and very specific biofuel-related issues.
They need to kiss the baby.