Iowa business leader could earn spot in Trump Cabinet

Source: Jennifer Yachnin, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, August 12, 2016

Iowa agribusiness leader Bruce Rastetter is a vocal proponent of getting the federal government out of farming, but the multimillionaire, who made his fortune in the pork and ethanol industries, could be headed for a government job himself if Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump wins the White House.

Rastetter is a “leading candidate” to become secretary of the Department of Agriculture, according to a report Tuesday from, the website for the Newark Star-Ledger and Trenton Times, which cited unnamed sources within Trump’s campaign.

The report also stated that Rastetter, along with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) and former Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R), will soon be announced as an economic adviser to Trump’s presidential bid.

Neither Rastetter nor Trump’s press office returned requests for comment this week, but a Branstad spokesman told the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Gazette that the governor has spoken privately with Trump in recent weeks and will advise the campaign, albeit in an unofficial role.

“He’s agreed to advise the campaign on issues that are important to Iowa — namely renewable fuels and renewable energy,” Branstad spokesman Ben Hammes said. “That’s the role that he has agreed to play in this. I think it’s been a little overblown in that article that he’s serving in some official capacity to the campaign.”

Hammes also rebutted the suggestion that Rastetter is in the running for a Cabinet post, although Rastetter was seen meeting with Trump ahead of a late July rally in Iowa.

“I wasn’t privy to those conversations, and I don’t believe those have taken place,” he said. “Now, if they did, they could have taken place between the Trump campaign and Rastetter, I don’t know. But we weren’t part of those.”

But Iowa political consultant Craig Robinson said he would not be surprised to see Rastetter included in a potential Trump Cabinet.

“This is someone who not only understands agriculture policy and the agriculture industry, because he’s been involved,” said Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa. “This is someone who has worked in every imaginable aspect of Iowa agriculture and agriculture in general and has been very successful.”

Rastetter is a prominent Republican donor in Iowa — and close ally of Branstad — who has donated nearly $1.2 million to candidates in the state since 2003, as well as $631,000 to federal candidates since 1999, according to state and federal campaign finance records.

He also has acknowledged providing seed money to the political nonprofit American Future Fund, but an attorney told The New York Times in 2010 that amount was no more than $374,000 and said the Iowan had not provided additional funds.

Rastetter, who serves as chief executive of Summit Agricultural Group — which has stakes in crop and livestock production, real estate, wind energy and renewable fuels — demonstrated his political prowess in the state last year when he organized the Iowa Agriculture Summit.

The event drew nine GOP presidential primary contenders — Trump was confirmed as a speaker but did not attend — and Rastetter interviewed the would-be nominees individually on issues including the renewable fuel standard and U.S. EPA’s Clean Water Rule (Greenwire, March 9, 2015).

Robinson said the Iowa Agriculture Summit demonstrated that Rastetter’s sway extends beyond the Hawkeye State, where a lack of fundraising limits has allowed the Republican donor to become a prominent force in state politics.

“Bruce is on the top of every Republican’s list; you want him out there raising money from his network,” Robinson said. But the Iowa summit allowed Rastetter to “display his ability to play on a much bigger scale politically than we’ve seen him before.”

While the 2015 summit touched on environmental regulations, climate policy, labeling genetically modified foods and federal crop insurance subsidies, Robinson suggested Rastetter would focus on food production if appointed to a Trump Cabinet.

“This is someone who really understands the need for food production and the vital role it plays,” Robinson said. “I think he would take more of a businessman’s approach to government. He wouldn’t be a former senator or governor, but I think he does bring a lot of real-world experience.”

Raised on a family farm near Alden, Iowa, Rastetter built Heartland Pork Enterprises Inc., a large-scale hog confinement operation that he eventually sold to Minnesota-based Christensen Farms. He went on to co-found Hawkeye Energy Holdings LLC in 2003, which was at one time Iowa’s largest ethanol producer before its Chapter 11 bankruptcy (Greenwire, Dec. 22, 2009). He stepped down as the firm’s CEO in 2011.

Rastetter also currently serves as president of the Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s public universities, a post Branstad first appointed him to in 2013. His term expires in April 2017.

Despite Rastetter’s interest in wind energy production, Iowa environmentalists said yesterday they would not welcome the GOP donor to a Trump Cabinet post.

“There’s nothing, nothing in his past, in his record, in his worldview, in his ethics that we would support or endorse,” said Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network.

Raffensperger, who also serves on the executive committee of the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club, pointed to apparent overlaps between Rastetter’s businesses and his role on the Iowa Board of Regents.

In one instance, Rastetter’s AgriSol Energy LLC pursued an agreement with Iowa State University to develop farmland in Tanzania. The agreement, however, would have displaced 160,000 refugees living in the nation, and Iowa State withdrew its support for the project in 2012.

The Des Moines Register also reported in 2014 that Rastetter received $480,000 in interest-free loans from the university’s Iowa Energy Center for wind turbines related to his Summit Farms headquarters and related hog confinement facilities.

Both Rastetter and state officials denied any wrongdoing at the time, saying the Republican did not receive special consideration for the loans.

“It didn’t have anything to do with me being a regent,” Rastetter told the newspaper. “Those application processes were exactly the same thing for everyone. I think wind energy is a good thing for Iowa, and we participated with it.”

But Raffensperger dismissed Rastetter’s support for renewable energy production as little more than a business investment, asserting that he has pushed the state’s universities to focus on industrializing the state’s agriculture.

“A wind farm? That’s all great and fine. They’re going in anyway, with or without Branstad and with or without Rastetter. That he’s supported a few wind farms does not outweigh his philosophy,” Raffensperger said.