COUNCIL BLUFFS, Ia. — President Donald Trump told Iowa and Nebraska farmers Tuesday they will be better off financially after he's done hammering out new deals with U.S. trade partners. "We're turning it all around. ... Wait until it all comes together," said Trump, who touted his administration's decision to provide $28 billion to farmers slammed by ongoing trade wars.
"We're reversing decades of failed trade policies, opening up new markets and finally giving our farmers a fair and level playing field that they deserve," Trump said Tuesday during a stop at Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy.
Farmers have struggled with declining corn and soybean prices following several years of record harvests and growing supplies. More recently, the president's trade war has been blamed for declining exports to China and other large U.S. farm customers .
"You're going to make a lot of money, you're going to grow a lot of corn and everything else," Trump said. He asked Iowans to push congressional leaders to support the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which would replace the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement.
The president's victory lap in Iowa, the nation's largest ethanol producer, comes after the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule in May allowing for year-round access to E15 , the shorthand for gasoline blended with 15% ethanol.
Trump told dozens of supporters that he's accomplished with E15 what Democrats did not.
"By unlocking the power of American agriculture and American energy, we're fueling a roaring economy," Trump said, touting the nation's low unemployment rate and other recent economic gains.
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Despite the cheers, Iowa leaders worry that hardship waivers the EPA has provided to oil refineries will undermine the expected increase in demand for ethanol — and the corn typically used to make it.
The ethanol industry says small refinery exemptions have destroyed demand for 2.6 billion gallons of ethanol, and 1 billion bushels of corn, since the president took office.
Iowa farmer: 'There's still work to do' Kevin Ross, a Minden farmer who was one of three people to speak during Trump's rally, told the president: "There's still work to do."
"Small refinery waivers threaten to undo your good works," Ross said. "I ask that you listen again, because the pain the biodiesel and ethanol industries has endured is holding back the farm economy."
The higher ethanol blend had been banned in the summer, a rule the ethanol industry said was outdated. Most gasoline sold in the U.S. contains 10% ethanol.
Year-round access to E15 could increase demand by 100 to 200 million bushels of corn in the short-term.
"If we approve E15, but go the wrong way on small refinery exemptions, we won't have helped farmers out much," said Mike Naig, Iowa's agriculture secretary. "It's a message of thanks and appreciation for bringing certainty on E15, but we have to keep advocating on refinery exemptions."
Kevin Kinney, a Democratic state senator and farmer, said Iowa growers are struggling.
The Trump administration's $28 billion in two rounds of aid is designed to help offset harm experienced by farmers slammed by trade wars with China, Mexico, Canada and other countries.
"We've got multiple tariff wars going on," said Kinney, who farms near Iowa City. "We've got widespread weather, flooding in the Midwest. People in my area are just getting started with planting.
"We're in a real economic crunch here. ... it's just a tough time, and we need the support of the Trump administration."
Kinney spoke on a call with reporters, along with Tom Vilsack, a former U.S. agriculture secretary, and Patty Judge, Iowa's former agriculture secretary and the chairwoman of Focus on Rural America.
Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, said the expanded E15 access helps farmers and consumers with lower-cost fuel. But he also believes the administration's small-refinery waivers counter E15 gains.
"The E15 announcement is just that, an announcement," said Vilsack, CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. "We've not seen the impact yet of E15 sales."
The ethanol industry says the exemptions, historically granted only to small, financially distressed oil companies, have been awarded to giants such as ExxonMobil and Chevron Corp.
EPA: New rule could make the difference EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told the Register that the agency is "hopeful that by increasing ... E15 to year-round, it will help make up the difference for any small refinery exemptions going forward."
The administration is considering nearly 40 waivers for 2018. The waivers lag a year.
Wheeler said the agency lost three lawsuits, forcing it to provide the hardship waivers. He said the agency has to consider the refinery's situation, not that of the parent corporation.
"Even if a large company owns a small refinery, if the refinery is not making a profit, then the large company is just going to close it up and walk away, and that will hurt the fuel supply of that market," Wheeler said.
"We don't look at the corporate parent," he said. "We look at the refinery itself and the economics for each individual refinery, and that's what's required under the statute."
Monte Shaw, the Iowa Renewable Fuels executive director, said it's difficult for any refinery to declare a hardship, given low prices for ethanol and RINs — or renewable identification numbers — the industry's biofuels trading program.
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The president was expected to attend a Tuesday evening fundraiser in West Des Moines. He took the time before and during his policy-related event to criticize former Vice President Joe Biden, a presidential candidate who also visited Iowa on Tuesday. Biden took aim at Trump as well.
More: 'Existential threat to America': Joe Biden, Donald Trump trade insults in Iowa
Before the evening fundraiser, protesters gathered in West Des Moines to critique Trump's stances on climate change. Five people were arrested about 5:20 p.m. Tuesday in West Des Moines outside of Hy-Vee's corporate offices.
A captain with West Des Moines police said the three men and two women, each associated with Bold Iowa, would likely be cited for trespassing and released.
The Register's Stephen Gruber-Miller and Robin Opsahl contributed to this report.
Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. She can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 515-284-8457.