Source: Sioux City Journal

By Mike Bell

SIOUX CITY | The Iowa caucuses might be top of mind for the news media in Washington, D.C., but the state's freshman senator said she'd rather talk about the bird flu epidemic that's ravaging the poultry industry back home.

During a meeting Monday with the Journal's editorial board, Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst said she understands the difficulties producers are facing in the current crisis.

Moreover, she is pushing for the federal government to take proper steps in its response to aid requests, she said.

“We are ground zero for this,” Ernst said. “I don’t want Congress to have a knee-jerk reaction in this situation." 

Northwest Iowa has been the hardest-hit region in the state by the virus.

Ernst, who was elected in November, and Chuck Grassley, a Republican representing Iowa in the Senate since 1981, have asked for a federal hearing on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s response to the epidemic. 

Both are members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. 

The hearing is set for July 7 and is titled "Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza: The Impact Of The U.S. Poultry Sector And Protecting U.S. Poultry Flocks."

More than 29 million chickens and turkeys have been killed by the virus or destroyed in efforts to contain it. The diseased poultry remains will need to be disposed of in landfills or incinerators, and producers will need help in rebuilding their flocks.

On Monday, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad extended a disaster declaration in the epidemic through July 31.

Ernst said she has been asked by producers what to do, especially those distressed over losing their flocks while nearing retirement. 

“They ask me if they should invest in repopulating or seek other options,” she said. “These farmers are making hard decisions.” 

Those might be difficult questions to answer, but Ernst said she has a ready response for reporters who ask about the caucuses: She tells them she welcomes everyone to her home state and then changes the subject to farmers' struggles with the avian virus.

Ernst said she is concerned about the potential for Iowa to lose its status as the nation's top egg-producing state if some of the production shifts to other regions of the country.

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