top of page

Something was Missing from the Iowa Caucuses

Ethanol plant behind corn field

America’s heartland got the nation’s attention for much of 2023 and into 2024 as Iowa hosted the country’s first-in-the-nation Republican presidential caucuses, a privilege that the party has held since 1976. It frequently means media from across the globe following presidential candidates in places they don’t frequently go – farms – and talking about issues they rarely discuss – biofuels, alternative energy creation, food production, and the Farm Bill.


Even if you don’t follow the daily drama of politics and have little interest in the candidate that comes out on top in this complicated, quirky caucus process (where about five percent of registered voters turned out to support a Republican presidential candidate), you might appreciate the landscape that the event can provide. However, the 2024 campaign cycle was different. 


Yes, some of the candidates attended the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit, like other candidates have done previously. The Summit is sponsored by the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, which describes the association’s purpose like this:


“The Iowa Renewable Fuels Association (IRFA) brings together Iowa biofuel producers to foster the development and growth of the state’s renewable fuels industry through education, promotion and infrastructure development. IRFA is committed to maintaining Iowa’s leadership in renewable fuels and value- added co-products production.

Iowa is the country’s leading producer of ethanol and biodiesel with 42 ethanol plants capable of producing 4.5 billion gallons and 11 biodiesel plants with the production capacity of 410 million gallons. Today’s biofuel producers are constantly working on increasing efficiencies and reducing emissions. As the nation works toward a greener future, Iowa biofuels stand ready to be a part of the low-carbon solution that will get us there.”

The Summit in 2015 provided a memorable moment when the nation’s longest serving governor, Iowa’s Terry Branstad, caught me off guard with this comment, “I think it would be very damaging to our state.”


Branstad was talking about what it would mean if Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz -- the U.S. senator from petroleum-rich Texas -- would win the caucuses, instead of another candidate who might be more loyal to biofuels.

Branstad had a tradition for the past two decades of remaining neutral during the caucus campaign and would play impartial host, rather than prominent supporter. But neutrality could be tested. And the threat of Cruz did.  

Surprised that Branstad seemed to be breaking that practice of neutrality, I asked for clarification. Was he tossing neutrality aside and asking Iowans to support someone else besides Cruz? “Yes,” he responded.

Branstad’s commitment to renewable fuels, which he feels is a critical part of the Midwest’s financial future, outweighed any unofficial pledge to restrain from favoritism when it came to presidential candidates before his state’s cherished caucuses.  

Cruz won the caucuses anyway, despite Branstad’s push for voters to choose otherwise.

No such drama at 2024’s summit. The event featured panels critical to the agricultural industry: “How Do Middle East Conflicts Impact Regional Stability and U.S. Security?” “Gaining Altitude with Sustainable Aviation Fuel,” “Soybeans: Crushing It,” plus a keynote from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The summit included remarks by three presidential candidates (Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson).

However, former president Donald Trump skipped the event, as did Ohio biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. So much for day-long attention and candidate policy comparison coverage by the national media. (Although, the “horse race coverage” of the latest polls, gaffes, or verbal jab would be far more likely regardless.)


Trump’s absence was a theme throughout the campaign. Instead of intense campaigning across the state like presidential candidates typically do, holding countryside events while praising the spirit of the farmer, touring ethanol plants, and pledging support for the renewable fuels industry, Trump instead held a few dozen rallies. (For the record: his campaign team spent extensive time organizing supporters across the state. It was a far superior effort compared to 2016 when he finished second in the caucuses to Cruz. The 2024 effort paid off with a 30-point caucus night victory over second place DeSantis and wins in 98 of the state’s 99 counties. Haley was the only other candidate to carry a county on caucus night and that was by a one-vote margin in Johnson County.)


DeSantis, Haley, and Hutchinson all dutifully expressed allegiance to the renewable fuels industry, both with their appearance at the summit and through their support for the priorities the industry stresses.


Biofuels Vision 2024 eight vital issues scorecard.
Biofuels Vision 2024 eight vital issues scorecard

There were lingering questions about Trump and Ramaswamy’s commitments and not just because they refused to attend the event. As president, Trump issued a record number of waivers to smaller oil refineries so they wouldn’t have to follow provisions of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandated a minimum blend of renewables in the fuel supply. That reduced potential demand for biofuels.


His unknown commitment to the Renewable Fuel Standard was just one of the five question marks the Biofuels Vision 20204 scorecard displayed, the most of any of the five Republican presidential candidates.


Ramaswamy opposed extending the renewable fuels tax credits, which the industry concerns vital to its viability.


Trump’s minimal physical presence in the state, a tactical decision largely influenced by his longstanding dominance in public opinion polls for the 2024 GOP nomination, changed the overall day-to-day dynamics and media attention of the race. In his absence, the cycle wasn’t full of forums, where candidates would have to line up one after the other answering questions that were important to the agricultural economy (in addition to their biofuels positions). 


  • What should the next Farm Bill include?

  • Where will food and biofuels producers find the workers they need, some of whom of transient migrants?

  • What about wind energy tax credits?

  • What will reduce interest rates?

  • What ag-specific regulations should change?

  • How does the country promote sustainability without overly burdensome (and costly) mandates?


Many questions left unanswered following an Iowa Caucus campaign unlike any previous one with more attention paid to the frontrunner who seldom visited, often tweeted and dominated the media coverage far more than the issues for the future.


American Farmland Owner Hayfields mountains


Subscribe to Where Landowners Get Their News® and be the first aware of agricultural insights, analysis, and in-depth interviews.


Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page