Top lawmakers demand farmer, biofuel assistance

Source: By Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Top lawmakers said they’ll keep pressing for additional aid to farmers hit by a freak severe thunderstorm outbreak last year, after congressional Democrats kept such assistance out of the COVID-19 spending measure on the verge of enactment.

The defeat of the weather-related assistance — which would have applied to other natural disasters as well — brought rebukes from Iowa congressional lawmakers.

The development illustrates the kind of decisions Congress faces as climate change contributes to extreme weather that outstrips the farm safety net.

“They were turning their backs on farmers,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told agriculture reporters on a conference call.

Grassley said he’ll look for other ways to approve the assistance, as did Rep. Randy Feenstra (R-Iowa) through a spokesman.

A stand-alone measure doesn’t seem the most likely route, Grassley said, but he told reporters that Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) promised to work with him, possibly through the appropriations process.

Grassley had tried to resurrect the disaster provision, which didn’t include a dollar amount but spelled out that the Department of Agriculture could use money in the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion pandemic measure to help farmers hit by storms, including the Iowa derecho.

The COVID-19 package already includes more than $20 billion for various agriculture programs, including debt relief for Black farmers.

The push to use the pandemic relief effort for weather-related damage points to shortcomings in the farm safety net as growers deal with the consequences of climate change.

Flood, drought, wind and oddly timed freezes have always been a part of farming, but scientists say those events will be more frequent and severe as the climate continues to warm.

Federal crop insurance, which is largely subsidized by taxpayers, doesn’t cover all the types of damage farmers experienced, such as to grain storage facilities, lawmakers like Feenstra have noted.

‘Missed opportunity’?

The derecho hit Iowa on Aug. 10, 2020. Winds of 100 mph flattened hundreds of thousands of acres of crops, and most blown-over corn couldn’t be harvested, Grassley said in a floor speech last week.

Some Iowa counties saw corn yields fall by 30% or more from the prior year because of the storm, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

NOAA estimated total costs in Iowa and other affected states, from agriculture and other sources, at an inflation-adjusted $11 billion, the eight-largest such event since 1980.

But the push to help farmers hit two stumbling blocks — first, in the House, then in the Senate.

The House Agriculture Committee endorsed aid in the COVID-19 package with the support of Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa), among others, but it was stripped out in the Rules Committee as leaders made late adjustments.

Grassley tried to restore the farm aid through an amendment on the Senate floor but lost that vote, 45-54. All Democrats voted no, as did three Republicans — Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Stabenow spoke out against Grassley’s proposal, saying in a speech on the Senate floor that it would risk taking money away from programs more directly related to the pandemic.

“Iowa producers have already received nearly $600 million in crop insurance indemnities for damages in 2020. If crop insurance can’t meet the need, the other opportunity is to consider something in appropriations,” Stabenow said. “It should not be here.”

The Iowa Farm Bureau, a lobbying group in the state, sees the COVID-19 measure as a missed opportunity and is also working on other ways to secure aid, said a spokesman, Andrew Wheeler.

“Iowa is working with other disaster-impacted states to get relief for farmers who suffered from storms and other disasters such as fires and hurricanes during the last year,” Wheeler told E&E News.

“Congress needs to act on this aid as soon as they can so farmers don’t have to shoulder this burden on their own,” he said.

Farm-state lawmakers have been seeking other assistance as part of the pandemic-related programs as well, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will face pressure to tailor newly expanded programs to those requests.

Axne, Grassley and other Iowa lawmakers urged Vilsack in a letter in late February to include custom cattle feeders in the assistance offered through the coronavirus food assistance program. Custom feeders provide feedlot space, feed, health services and marketing for livestock owned by someone else.


Midwest lawmakers also continue to call for aid to the biofuel industry, which was hobbled by falling transportation fuel demand and plant closures early in the pandemic.

Grassley and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) led a letter to Vilsack — who’s also from Iowa — Monday asking that aid from pandemic-related measures be made specifically available to help biofuel producers recover losses.

“As the Department prepares a proposal for providing assistance to the agriculture industry using CCC and other resources, we ask that you use this explicit authority to aid the nation’s biofuels industry,” they said, also reminding Vilsack of comments he made during his confirmation hearing suggesting he’ll look for ways to “get biofuel producers back on track.”