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Farmers' loyalty to Trump tested over new corn-ethanol rules

LACONA, Iowa

When President Donald Trump levied tariffs on China that scrambled global markets, farmer Randy Miller was willing to absorb the financial hit. Even as the soybeans in his fields about an hour south of Des Moines became less valuable, Miller saw long-term promise in Trump’s efforts to rebalance America’s trade relationship with Beijing.

“The farmer plays the long game,” said Miller, who grows soybeans and corn and raises pigs in Lacona. “I look at my job through my son, my grandkids. So am I willing to suffer today to get this done to where I think it will be better for them? Yes.”

But the patience of Miller and many other Midwest farmers with a president they mostly supported in 2016 is being put sorely to the test.

The trigger wasn’t Trump’s China tariffs but the waivers the administration granted this month to 31 oil refineries so they don’t have to blend ethanol into their gasoline. Since roughly 40% of the U.S. corn crop is turned into ethanol, it was a fresh blow to corn producers already struggling with five years of low commodity prices and the threat of mediocre harvests this fall after some of the worst weather in years.

“That flashpoint was reached and the frustration boiled over, and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Lynn Chrisp, who grows corn and soybeans near Hastings, Nebraska, and is president of the National Corn Growers Association.

“I’ve never seen farmers so tired, so frustrated, and they’re to the point of anger,” says Kelly Nieuwenhuis, a farmer from Primghar in northwest Iowa who said the waivers were a hot topic at a recent meeting of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. Nieuwenhuis said he voted for Trump in 2016, but now he’s not sure who he’ll support in 2020.

While Iowa farmer Miller saw Trump’s brinkmanship with China as a necessary gamble to help American workers, the ethanol waivers smacked to him of favoritism for a wealthy and powerful industry—Big Oil.

“That’s our own country stabbing us in the back,” Miller said. “That’s the president going, ‘The oil companies need to make more than the American farmer.’ ... That was just, ‘I like the oil company better or I’m friends with the oil company more than I’m friends with the farmer.’”

The Environmental Protection Agency last month kept its annual target for the level of corn ethanol that must be blended into the nation’s gasoline supply under the Renewable Fuel Standard at 15 billion gallons for 2020. That was a deep disappointment to an ethanol industry that wanted a higher target to offset exemptions granted to smaller refiners. Those waivers have cut demand by an estimated 2.6 billion gallons since Trump took office.

At least 15 ethanol plants already have been shut down or idled since the EPA increased waivers under Trump, and a 16th casualty came Wednesday at the Corn Plus ethanol plant in the southcentral Minnesota town of Winnebago. The Renewable Fuels Association says the closures have affected more than 2,500 jobs.

The 31 new waivers issued this month came on top of 54 granted since early 2018, according to the association. While the waivers are intended to reduce hardships on small oil refiners, some beneficiaries include smaller refineries owned by big oil companies.

The administration knows it has a problem. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said at a farm policy summit in Decatur, Illinois, on Wednesday that Trump will take action to soften the effects. He would not say what the president might do or when but said Trump believes the waivers by his EPA were “way overdone.”

Geoff Cooper, head of the Renewable Fuels Association, said the heads of the EPA and Agriculture Department and key White House officials have been discussing relief and said that his group has been talking with officials involved in those conversations. He said they’ve heard the plan could include reallocating the ethanol demand lost from the exempted smaller refiners to larger refiners that would pick up the slack, but many key details remain unclear, including whether the reallocation would apply in 2020 or be delayed until 2021.

“Anything short of that redistribution or reallocation is not going to be well received by farmers, I’ll tell you that,” Cooper said.

The White House referred questions to the EPA, where spokesman Michael Abboud said only that the agency would “continue to consult” on the best path forward.

Meanwhile, the oil industry has spoken out against some of the steps Trump has taken to try to appease the farmers, including allowing year-round sales of gasoline with more ethanol mixed in.

“We hope the administration walks back from the brink of a disastrous political decision that punishes American drivers. Bad policy is bad politics,” Frank Macchiarola, a vice president for the American Petroleum Institute trade group, said in a statement.

Another example of the tensions came last week when the Agriculture Department pulled its staffers out of the ProFarmer Crop Tour, an annual assessment of Midwest crop yields, in response to an unspecified threat. The agency said it came from “someone not involved with the tour” and Federal Protective Services was investigating.

Despite farmers’ mounting frustrations, there’s little evidence so far that many farmers who backed Trump in 2016 will desert him in 2020. Many are still pleased with his rollbacks in other regulations. Cultural issues such as abortion or gun rights are important to many of them. And many are wary of a Democratic Party they see as growing more liberal.

Miller, too, says he’s still inclined to support Trump in the next election.

Though Trump has inserted new uncertainty into Miller’s own financial situation, he believes the president has been good for the economy as a whole. And as a staunch opponent of abortion, he sees no viable alternatives in the Democratic presidential field.

Chrisp, too, says he doesn’t see an acceptable Democratic alternative. Still, he cautioned Republicans against taking farmers for granted.

“We’re not a chip in the political game, though I’m certain there are folks who are political strategists who view us that way, but it’s not the case,” he said.

Brian Thalmann, who farms near Plato in southcentral Minnesota and serves as president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, confronted Perdue at a trade show this month about Trump’s recent statements that farmers are starting to do well again.

“Things are going downhill and downhill very quickly,” Thalmann told Perdue.

Thalmann, who voted for Trump in 2016, said this week that he can’t support him at the moment. He said farmers have worked too hard to build up markets and the reputation of American farm products and that he “can’t see agriculture getting dragged down the path it currently is.”


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Boulders added to Rock River for fish after Monterey Dam removal

JANESVILLE

By the end of the week, 50 boulders will be dropped into the Rock River as part of the restoration project near the site of the former Monterey Dam.

The boulders and the shoreline restoration are meant to “re-create what the river was like before (human) settlement,” said Paul Woodard, city public works director.

Placing boulders in the river will help the fish habitat and create erosion control, said LaVerne Luchsinger Jr., boat captain and project manager with Drax, the general contractor for the restoration project.

Large rivers, such as the Rock River, have sand and silt bottoms that do not provide much habitat for aquatic insects, said Michael A. Miller, stream ecologist for the state Department of Natural Resources, in an email to The Gazette.

Aquatic insects are the base of the food chain for fish, turtles and other river animals, Miller said.

Boulders provide attachment sites for the insects and refuge for fish from the current, Miller said.

“If you had to swim 24/7 against the current of the Rock River, you would be a pretty skinny fish and wouldn’t lay many eggs,” Miller said in his email.

Angela Major 

LaVerne Luschinger Jr. and Chuck Sevlom transport a boulder on the Rock River on Wednesday in Janesville.

Some fish species scatter eggs among rocks. Eggs settle into rock crevices where, once hatched, small fish can “seek refuge” from water flow and predators instead of drifting down the river to be eaten by predators or buried or suffocated by silt, Miller said.

“In general, humans like to take all of the ‘debris’ out of streams and rivers, creating a biological desert,” Miller said. “The more we can provide diverse habitat, the more aquatic, amphibious and terrestrial species will flourish and improve the ecology of the river and the land-water interface.”

To float the 4,000-pound boulders into position, Drax workers created a small barge from floating pier sections, Luchsinger said.

Water in the river is too deep for excavators, Luchsinger said.

About 20 boulders will be placed upstream from where the Monterey Dam used to be. The remaining 30 boulders will be placed downstream, Luchsinger said.

Angela Major 

Chuck Sevlom shields his face as a boulder splashes into the Rock River in Janesville on Wednesday.

Woodard said he has seen a lot of people fishing near the former dam site this summer, a year after the dam was removed.

“I hear fishing is good,” Woodard said.

The restoration project has been estimated by the city to cost $1.27 million. Nearly $920,000 of that is covered by grants from the state DNR, according to a previous report by The Gazette.

The city council voted in March 2017 to remove the Monterey Dam. The removal process began in July 2018 after years of contention between the city and vocal opponents, many of whom belonged to the Monterey Dam Association.

Cost to maintain the dam was cited by council members as a primary reason to remove it. Opponents have been concerned about the environmental impact of removing the dam and how the city managed the dam removal process.


Obituaries and death notices for Aug. 29, 2019

Willie Larnell Bond

Lowell Miller Holden

Linda R. Kettle

Elizabeth H. “Beth” Murray

Shirley Ann Van Dan


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FBI enters Janesville home as part of UAW probe

JANESVILLE

The FBI executed a search warrant at the Janesville home of a former United Auto Workers employee Wednesday as part of a Detroit-based corruption probe of the auto industry, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Leonard Peace, spokesman for the FBI’s Milwaukee office, confirmed FBI agents executed a federal search warrant in Janesville on Wednesday in support of an investigation out of the FBI’s Detroit division.

“It’s a pending matter. It’s not a case based out here in Wisconsin,” Peace told The Gazette.

The Janesville home was that of the former Amy Loasching, now Amy Wehrwein since her wedding in December, her Facebook page indicates.

The Gazette reached Wehrwein at her Janesville home Wednesday afternoon. She declined to comment.

A neighbor of the Wehrweins said FBI vehicles had lined the street Wednesday. The neighbor expressed concern and wanted to know what happened.

The action in Janesville came on the same day the FBI searched the suburban Detroit home of the president of the United Auto Workers, Gary Jones.

Agents also searched the Corona, California, home of Dennis Williams, who preceded Jones as UAW president, The Associated Press reported.

Wehrwein worked at the Janesville General Motors plant and became a union official, later working for Williams.

Wehrwein was controller with the UAW International President’s Office, according to a letter she wrote to the Gazette editor in 2014.

The Free Press called her Williams’ top aide.

The Associated Press said the search of Jones’ home was “apparently another step in a corruption investigation that has netted labor leaders and auto industry officials and damaged the union’s reputation during contract talks with U.S. car companies.”

The UAW criticized the “remarkable” search of Jones’ home in Canton Township, insisting it has fully cooperated with authorities, the AP said.

“President Jones is determined to uncover and address any and all wrongdoing, wherever it might lead,” the UAW said in a written statement. “There was absolutely no need for search warrants to be used by the government today.

“The UAW has voluntarily responded to every request the government has made throughout the course of its investigation, produced literally hundreds of thousands of documents and other materials to the government, and most importantly, when wrongdoing has been discovered, we have taken strong action to address it,” the union said.

Wehrwein, now retired, is listed as secretary and treasurer of Williams’ nonprofit, the Williams Charity Fund, on a 2018 tax exemption form filed by the charity, the Free Press reported.

The AP said eight people have pleaded guilty in an investigation of union officials and Fiat Chrysler executives since 2017. Officials were accused of enriching themselves with money from a job training center in Detroit.

Wehrwein served on the Janesville City Council from 2007 to 2009, Gazette records indicate. She was known for volunteering for local charitable organizations and served on the local United Way board and was president of the YWCA of Rock County.

The raids come as the UAW is negotiating new contracts with automakers.

“Trust in UAW leadership is never more important than during the bargaining process, when profit-laden auto companies stand to benefit from media leaks, false assumptions, and political grandstanding,” the union’s statement said. “The sole focus of President Jones and his team will be winning at the bargaining table for our members.”


Paul Sancya 

United Auto Workers President Gary Jones speaks during the opening of the union’s contract talks with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in Auburn Hills, Mich., in July.