Vice President Mike Pence

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa – Vice President Mike Pence’s May 8 visit to Iowa had a surreal feel to it.

It began when the vice president was delayed for more than an hour in Washington, D.C., after one of his staffers tested positive for the coronavirus. It ended with waves to a socially-distanced crowd of grocery store employees.

Between those times, the vice president met with a group of faith leaders in a church and then chaired a panel discussion with Republican lawmakers, packing company CEOs, grocery chain CEOs and the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The vice president used the roundtable portion of his visit to thank farmers and packing plant and supermarket employees for their work to keep consumers fed.

“You kept food on the American table throughout the coronavirus epidemic,” Pence told the executives who were gathered at appropriate distances around the table.

He told the group the administration had slowed the spread of the virus and insisted “we’re gonna get America rolling again.”

The panelists thanked the vice president and said the help offered by the federal government was appreciated. They also expressed thanks to the workers in the packing plants and at the supermarkets who had continued to work throughout the outbreak.

“Our employees have been showing up day after day, in close quarters,” said Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan, who added that “it’s gut wrenching for us as companies to have the choice between maintaining the food supply in this country and asking our employees to go into plants to do that .. These employees really deserve a lot of gratitude.”

But while employees of Hy-Vee, the supermarket chain that hosted the meeting, were present, packing plant workers themselves were conspicuously absent from the table. Some Democrats called the visit little more than a campaign event.

Former Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge issued a statement asking why the vice president was flying to Iowa at a time when governors across the country are asking the public to not travel or gather in large groups unneccesarily.

And while the officials gathered around the table were unanimous in thanking the administration for help offered, not every note was positive. Sen. Charles Grassley and Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall both mentioned the difference between the low prices being paid to farmers for cattle and the prices seen at the supermarkets for meat.

“We do have serious concerns about market manipulation,” Duvall said.

After the meeting, he also mentioned that the ethanol industry is a major concern as well.

But everyone at the table, including the vice president, offered thanks that the public had continued to be fed and said that if there are heroes, it is the farmers and frontline workers and supermarket employees. And while they said they hoped to have packing plants open quickly, it may take some time to get them up to speed due to safety concerns.

“We’ve got to make sure people are safe. That’s got to be our number one concern,” Duvall said.

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