President George Washington once said, “It will not be doubted that with reference either to individual or national welfare agriculture is of primary importance.”
Here in Iowa – and in many other places across the country – we know how critical agriculture is to our economy and our everyday lives. Iowans sent me to Congress with a clear mandate: to protect our agricultural interests which are vital to a strong economy and the future of our great state.
We are a national leader in egg production as nearly one in every five eggs consumed in the United States comes from Iowa. However, when the recent pandemic outbreak of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), commonly referred to as the bird flu, hit our state, it hit us the hardest. Currently, over two-thirds of infected and destroyed birds nationwide have come from our poultry farmers, resulting in tremendous losses and a ripple effect throughout our rural economy. It is not only devastating for our producers, but also their employees, those employees’ families and the communities that are supported by these producers.
Iowans know what is best for Iowa, which is why I held town meetings across the state to hear directly from producers and other folks impacted about what response procedures were working, what was not and how to improve for the future. We brought those concerns back to Washington and at the request of Senator Charles Grassley and myself, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee held a hearing last week to look at the federal government’s response to the outbreak. Specifically, the committee heard testimony from Iowa turkey farmer Brad Moline of Moline Farms in Manson and Jim Dean of Sioux Center, chairman of the board of United Egg Producers. The hearing provided an opportunity for folks in Washington to hear firsthand from impacted farmers and producers on conflicting information, complicated paperwork for depopulation and cleanup, limited composting alternatives and confusion surrounding indemnification.
On the heels of that hearing, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also convened a hearing on prevention of the avian flu. I pressed the USDA on the current progress of an HPAI vaccine to safeguard our poultry industry from an outbreak of such magnitude, while ensuring our vital export markets are protected, and sought clarity on indemnity funds and the confusion that still exists for our producers.
These hearings allowed Iowans’ voices to be directly heard in Washington. They provided an opportunity to evaluate the avian flu outbreak, and bring leaders and stakeholders together to review what happened. It is evident that expedited research and development to commercialize a HPAI vaccine should continue as Iowa’s future depends on a stable domestic supply of our poultry products. Yet we must pursue such development while also working with our trading partners around the world to ensure our exports will continue to have access to markets that allow this industry to thrive.
After seeing the devastating impact the bird flu has had on Iowa and other states, it is deeply disappointing that the Obama administration has denied Gov. Terry Branstad’s request for a Presidential Disaster Declaration. Nonetheless, I remain steadfast in my commitment to ensure that actionable steps are being taken to put preventative measures in place to combat any future spread or reoccurrence in the fall. The federal government now has a clearer roadmap as to how to best move forward to help our state rebound quicker from the avian influenza outbreak and ensure we are adequately prepared in the future.
It has been a difficult road for our state, but our producers have made their voices heard, the USDA folks on the ground have been listening and helped work through this unprecedented outbreak to contain the spread, and now we can build off improvements to ensure this deadly disease reaches full containment and is stopped altogether.
Agriculture is vital to Iowans – as well as our national economy – and thanks to the tireless hard work of our Iowa farmers and producers, the poultry industry will get back on its feet stronger than before.
Republican Joni Ernst represents Iowa in the United States Senate.
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