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In Iowa, Trump's 'long rope' with farmers is starting to run out

Dust drifts over a cornfield in Alden, Iowa, on Aug. 28, 2017. Corn dominates the landscape and is primarily used for producing ethanol and feeding hogs. Iowa is the leading U.S. producer of corn and pork. Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount

Let's not overstate it. Iowa's agricultural heartland is still largely Trump country. But there are signs, nascent and just starting to bubble, that support is being tested.

That was the message at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit in Altoona this week. The state is the largest U.S. producer of corn-based ethanol. Donald Trump has time and again pledged to back the biofuel industry, even promising a plan that would mean higher sales this summer. But his trade war with China has meant American producers face tariffs, while ripples from the record-long government shutdown threaten to delay the policy change that could lift demand.

"Farmers are optimistic," and feel good that Trump will follow through on his biofuel assurances, Jeff Altena, a farmer and director of operations at Siouxland Energy Cooperative in Sioux Center, Iowa, said in an interview Tuesday at the summit. Still, the agriculture community has given the president "a long rope," but "there's a lot of folks" starting to get antsy for more progress, he said.

America's farmers - part of the base that helped drive Trump's election victory — have been the unintended victims of many of the administration's policies. The trade war sparked declines for crop prices as China snubbed American supplies. The president rolled out aid payments to help soften that blow. But then, the shutdown prevented some growers from filing paperwork for those payments. It also meant delays for some farm loans.

Ethanol could end up being the ultimate test of patience.

In 2018, Trump said he'd change policy to allow for summertime sales of gasoline blended with as much as 15 percent ethanol, something the industry for years had asked for in order to boost demand. The Environmental Protection Agency originally planned to issue a proposal on the rule in February in order to get it finalized before fueling restrictions kick in on June 1. EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said this month the shutdown could mean delays to the process, while saying he still expected the rule change in time for the summer driving season.

At this week's summit, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association put up a poster-sized letter to Wheeler from the group, asking him to "take immediate action" to make sure the rule change is in place by June 1 to allow for the sales of higher ethanol blends, known as E15.

Trump spoke at the annual biofuel conference back in 2016, when he said that he was with the industry "100 percent." Altena said he was there to watch then-candidate Trump lay out his promises, and that so far, "by golly, he's backing it up."

Still, if some of the industry's concerns, including the trade war and E15 sales, aren't sorted out this year, then "Trump will find a very different reaction here" than he's been used to, said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. "I don't think anybody in the White House should look at Iowa and say, 'Hey, that's automatically going to be renewable-fuels-for-Trump country."'

This article was written by Mario Parker, a reporter for The Washington Post.