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Farm bill comes to crossroads

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THIEF RIVER FALLS - Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told a roomful of farmers and other interested people Monday that he won't support an extension of the current farm bill if Congress can't finalize a new one.

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Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, also demonstrated his knowledge of renewable fuels and the ethanol industry, calling for increased renewable fuel standard benchmarks and better distribution networks for ethanol-based gasoline to broaden its reach in a burgeoning market, another important topic for area producers.

A new farm bill is bogged down in the U.S. Senate, cluttered with more than 280 amendments - many not related to agriculture - and threatened by a veto from President Bush. The House passed its version of the bill in July.

"We got our bill done on time like we said we would, and the Senate is doing what it does best - milling around," Peterson said.

Peterson said he's hopeful that the Senate will produce a bill in December, and differences with the House could be hammered out quickly in conference committee. He said about 80 percent of the issues could be resolved in January after a scheduled recess, and the rest could be worked out soon after.

"We could get this all done in January," Peterson said.

If not, he said, some have brought up the possibility of a two-year extension of the current farm bill. But Peterson said an extension would quash 70 percent of the programs in the new bill that have to do with food stamps and nutrition.

Northern-tier crops

Peterson said sugar and other northern-tier crops, such as wheat, corn and soybeans, also would not fare as well under an extension. If a new law isn't passed by late February or March and the current farm bill's price supports expire without an extension, then, "permanent law" would kick in, he said.

That means crops would be priced based on the old quota system, likely leading to a 50 percent to 100 percent of parity increase.

That may be good for producers, but Peterson admits nobody in Congress really wants it to get to that point, though, it could put pressure on senators to get a bill passed, he said.

"Maybe, it's about time people realized how much it costs to grow food," he said.

Failed attempt

At least one attempt by Senate Democrats to spur along a vote has failed. Peterson blamed the delay on Republicans who don't want to be put in a position to defend a veto by the president.

Peterson said he likely will have to negotiate directly with the White House to get a bill passed.

Schafer factor

Peterson said Ed Schafer, a good friend and former Republican governor of North Dakota, who is the Bush nominee to be the next secretary of agriculture, most likely will be a nonfactor in the farm bill negotiations. He said rumors are flying that Schafer's confirmation will be held up until after a farm bill passes.

Peterson also told farmers that despite efforts to jump-start renewable fuels in the United States by increasing usage requirements, oil companies are not playing ball.

"They're still fighting us," he said.

Merle Anderson, Climax, Minn., who started the American Coalition of Ethanol 20 years ago, said better availability of "blending pumps," which allow users to choose their own grade of ethanol gasoline and a direct distribution network to markets is what the industry needs most now.

"We've got some problems at the plants," Anderson said. "We don't want to lose the industry by having plants shut down. We've got to get people using it."

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