Joni Ernst

Joni Ernst speaks during an event on a farm near Radcliffe.

A few things have changed since Joni Ernst burst on to the political scene six years ago. At that time, she was a military veteran and state senator with rural bonafides. She famously ran a commercial talking about castrating pigs — how she was going to make Washington politicians “squeal.” She rode a Republican tide to win an open seat in the United States Senate, defeating her Democratic opponent Bruce Braley.

Today, Ernst isn’t the outsider going against the establishment anymore. She’s the incumbent with a record to defend. Her opponent says she has sold out, an idea Ernst powerfully denies.

Ernst grew up in Stanton, Iowa, and earned a degree from Iowa State University. She then served in the National Guard, including a stint in Kuwait during the Iraq war. She served as county auditor in Montgomery County and was a state senator for three years before she was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014.

On the campaign trail, Ernst talks about the economy.

“What I’m hearing about this year,” she says “is about jobs and the economy. In Iowa that does tie into agriculture.”

And when talking about jobs and agriculture, the topic often turns to ethanol and biodiesel.

“I’m a supporter of biofuels,” she says. “I have been engaged with this fight for the RFS for years. The president has called me relentless on this issue.”

It’s a matter of some pride to Ernst, who was endorsed by the Iowa Corn Growers Association after not having been endorsed by that group six years ago, when her opponent was seen by many biofuel leaders as a stronger supporter of their product. Since then, she says she has worked hard to promote biofuels and to convince President Trump about their importance.

“I’ve been out there championing biofuels,” she says.

She also says she supports free trade.

“Trade is important to our farmers,” she says, citing the passage of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) as an important move, as well as approval of agreements with Japan and other Pacific nations.

She supported passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that was negotiated by the Obama administration but rejected by the Trump administration, and she defends the Trump administration trade war with China.

“China has been a bad actor,” Ernst says.

Ernst also continues to support the use of Commodity Credit Corporation funds by the USDA for Market Facilitation Program and COVID aid payments, despite the fact Congress did not design those programs. Congress appropriated money to the programs, she says, and they have been helpful.

“I think the farmers were grateful for those payments,” she says, adding, “Our farmers prefer trade and not aid.”

She disputes the idea that the moves by the USDA may negatively impact future farm bill discussions.

And Ernst says COVID has exposed some problems in the agricultural system beyond jobs. The virus exposed problems with the concentration in the meatpacking industry.

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Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.