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House ag leader sees few changes in 2007 Farm Bill

Bob Krauter Capital Press California Editor 1/9/07

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - The new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee has a vision of what the next farm bill should look like: similar to the current bill, but with a focus on renewable energy

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told farmers and ranchers Monday at the American Farm Bureau annual meeting in Salt Lake City that his committee is ready to take on the challenge of writing a new farm bill.

New House Agriculture Commitee Chairman Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., thinks few changes are needed in the 2007 Farm Bill, but it should have a focus on renewable energy. Peterson spoke to nearly 5,000 farmers and ranchers Monday at the American Farm Bureau annual meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah.

"We will have a lot of fights getting to where we need to get," Peterson said, but he predicted few changes from the current law.

"I think the farm bill will look a lot like where we are now."

Peterson has witnessed the development of three federal farm bills in his 16 years in Congress. He recalled the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, which drove farm subsidies up sharply under the law's core - market transition payments. "It didn't work," Peterson said.

One change he supports in the new bill includes a permanent disaster program. He said it was a mistake that Congress did not pass a disaster bill for the 2005 and 2006 crop years. He said there would be urgency in the new Congress to pass a $3 billion disaster bill and hopefully include a permanent disaster program in the next farm bill.

"Hopefully in the next farm bill we can get something done and we won't have to go through this out into the future," Peterson said.

Conservation programs, which received significant increase in funds in the 2002 Farm Bill, are expected to get support among many members of Congress, but Peterson said the big driver in the new farm bill will be renewable energy.

"Conservation will be an issue, but I think what is really going to drive this farm bill is going to be renewable energy and energy independence," Peterson said. "The country wants us off foreign oil. The country wants us to produce our fuel here in the United States. I am absolutely there 100 percent."

Support for renewable energy in Congress is growing, including the House Democratic caucus headed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco.

Peterson is solidly behind efforts to help the U.S. achieve energy independence.

"I am for anything we can do in this country -- I am for drilling, I am for increasing mileage on cars, I am for nuclear, I am for coal, I am for what ever we can do that makes economic sense here in the United States to quit buying foreign oil," Peterson said.

The ethanol industry is booming in his home state of Minnesota with more corn being grown, ethanol plants are more efficient and farmers are enjoying better prosperous times.

But Peterson said the farm bill should not limit its focus on corn-based ethanol.

"To get to where I think we need to be to produce 50 percent of our energy in rural America, we can't do it with just corn. We will run into the wall at some point," Peterson said. "The future is in cellulosic ethanol."

Cellulosic ethanol is produced by converting wheat straw, rice straw, switchgrass and wood chips into energy. He envisions possibly a CRP-type program to pay farmers to grow crops that can supply ethanol plants.

To make the technology feasible, Peterson said government help is needed to get the first cellulosic plants off the ground and to fund research.

"What we need to do to get to the level where I would like to get, we need to figure out what are the best biomass crops to grow," Peterson said. "We don't know enough."

The new chairman has been discussing the farm bill with other members of Congress, especially those who serve on budget committees in the House and Senate. Peterson does not expect resistance in gaining the necessary funds for the new farm bill given the fact that federal crop payments have declined in recent years.

"We are the only part of the United States government that is saving money the last four or five years. We are projected to save even more money," Peterson said. "So therefore, we should get some consideration as they put the budget together and potentially get some additional resources to do the things we need to do."

He intends to complete work on the 2007 Farm Bill and have it on President Bush's desk before the current bill expires Sept. 30, 2007. Peterson is optimistic that a comprehensive bill can be developed.

I believe that going forward, that we can get conservation, we can get wildlife, we can get fuel, and have somebody other than the government pay for it with this new program," Peterson said. "I really believe this will be a win all the way around. We have an opportunity to move beyond this fight we have had on commodity programs. I think this renewable fuels situation will move us beyond that to a whole new paradigm in this country."

Related Stories: Farm Bureau leader talks tough on trade, immigration Biofuel boom will continue Johanns: 2007 Farm Bill should be broader in scope, more equitable


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