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Trump Will Try To Bolster Iowa Farmers Hurt By Trade, Weather


President Trump visits Iowa today. He's promoting his administration's recent move to allow year-round sales of E15. That's a form of gasoline with higher blends of ethanol mainly made from corn. The policy allows the president to show support for farmers who are suffering from natural disasters and the trade war. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Before thousands of people in Iowa last October, President Trump said he was lifting summer restrictions on the sale of E15.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And my administration is protecting ethanol. All right. That's what you want to hear.


MASTERS: The ethanol industry and the No. 1 corn-producing state did want to hear that. The industry long lobbied for rules to increase the amount of ethanol in the gasoline supply, which the oil industry opposes. Bill Couser serves on the board of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.

BILL COUSER: I've got to move stuff.

MASTERS: On a recent morning in Nevada, Iowa, I hop into the cab of Couser's pickup truck that doubles as his rolling office.


COUSER: Excuse me. Hey, Tim, you want this tractor or not?

MASTERS: It's raining right now, keeping Couser out of his fields. Thanks to record-setting rainfall, it's been decades since Iowa farmers have been this far behind in planting corn. Couser says the weather's not fazing him. He's farmed through all kinds of elements.

COUSER: I mean, bring it on, you know? I'm not going to go away.

MASTERS: Farmers here have been dealing with low commodity prices, at the same time bearing the brunt of the president's trade wars. His administration has doled out billions of dollars in aid to them. But what bothers Couser more than anything is the administration trying to play both sides of ethanol versus oil. The Environmental Protection Agency has also been giving waivers to oil companies, basically exempting some refiners from the rules around how much ethanol they blend into gasoline.

COUSER: The waivers have basically taken away everything E15 would have done for us and ethanol. And to me, that's very disappointing.

MASTERS: That's something Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar is quick to point out. She's one of the nearly two dozen Democratic presidential candidates making regular stops in Iowa, which kicks off the presidential nominating process.

SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR: You can't be supportive of the renewable fuel industry if, on one hand, you're gloating about something you're doing, and then, on the other hand, you know, under the dark of night there, they're giving Exxon and Chevron waivers so that they don't have to meet the standards. And that has meant a significant decrease in the number of gallons of ethanol.

MASTERS: Year-round E15 could lead to more sales of ethanol if the waivers were reeled in. That's according to Gabriel Lade, an environmental economist at Iowa State University. He says Trump's ethanol announcement does not have a short-term benefit.

GABRIEL LADE: In the long run, this could benefit the ethanol industry, but that's certainly not, you know, the way it's being spun right now. It's being spun as an immediate benefit to farmers, which it won't be.

MASTERS: Lade says the much bigger economic issue facing farm country is the Trump administration ratcheting up tariffs on countries farmers export their crops to. Iowa's Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, plans to meet with Trump during his visit. She'll bring up the updated trade agreement between U.S., Canada and Mexico called the USMCA.


GOVERNOR KIM REYNOLDS: Tariffs right now, I think, potentially disrupt us getting the USMCA ratified. And so I really believe that that is where the focus needs to be. And I'm just concerned about, when he implements things like that, the impact that it has on our ability to get that done.

MASTERS: And Reynolds says she'll also thank the president for following through on his promise to make E15 available year-round.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.


Clay Masters is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio and formerly for Harvest Public Media. His stories have appeared on NPR