WASHINGTON — Iowa Senator Joni Ernst questioned U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack Thursday on issues ranging from electric cars and ethanol to farm subsidies for billionaires during a hearing before the Senate Ag Committee.
Ernst, a Republican, says it’s hard to understand why the largest ten-percent of farms are raking in 70% of commodity payments, and she says critical reforms are needed in how the U.S.D.A. decides who gets the cash. “Thus far, grants totaling $157 million have been awarded,” Ernst says. “Three of the largest grants total $69 million, which comprise nearly half of the funds awarded, three projects who are privately owned by some of the wealthiest people in the United States.”
Vilsack, a Democrat and a former Iowa governor, says proper procedures are being strictly followed with regards to the millions of dollars in agricultural grants that are being awarded. “The level of investment is based on the application that people have submitted,” Vilsack says. “Some of these plants are very small. The Charles City plant, for example, is very small. It needed $8 million and we provided it. The Cherokee plant needed several million dollars, we provided it. So Iowa has received several grants already and I anticipate and expect they’re going to receive at least one more.”
Ernst says recent recipients of the U.S.D.A. grants include a man who’s on the Forbes billionaires list, as well as a South Carolina family that owns major production facilities in five states. “I have no objection to families succeeding and owning a lot of businesses and I wish them great success,” Ernst says, “but what I find problematic is that taxpayer dollars are being doled out as free grants to billionaires, while applications from farmer-owned startups like Cattlemen’s Heritage in southwest Iowa are deemed unworthy through these grants.”
Cattlemen’s Heritage promises to be a regional cattle processing plant that’s planned for the Council Bluffs area. Owners say they’ll hire 800 workers who will process up to 2,000 head of cattle per day when the plant opens, tentatively in late 2024. Vilsack says he’s well aware of the endeavor.
“The Iowa project you mentioned is actually on the list that’s currently under review,” Vilsack says. “We’re in the process of finishing the environmental review that is required under NEPA, before grants can be issued. So, just be patient. I think you’re going to find that that is a project that merits additional investment.”
Ernst applauded the U.S.D.A.’s efforts to promote green energy, but denounced what she called an “ardent push toward electric vehicles,” calling Iowa-made, corn-based ethanol a ready-made resource that’s a cheaper energy solution and that’s “very beneficial for our farmers.” Vilsack didn’t address those comments directly.