MORTON -- Continuing to provide farmers with a safety net against possible downturns in prices will remain a priority as Congress prepares to draft a new farm bill.

That's despite the new challenges of budget deficits and free trade agreements prohibiting subsidies, according to Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

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Chambliss told members of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association on Tuesday that he wants to make sure that a safety net is included in the 2007 farm bill. He was a featured speaker as the Corn Growers opened their two-day Minnesota Ag Expo at Jackpot Junction in Morton. Chambliss championed the importance of federal farm insurance to protect against crop disasters and a safety net when prices drop.

He didn't define the size of the safety net he wanted, but said it should provide farmers with "some level" of income. "It will not guarantee you a profit, but it will allow you to farm the next year," he said.

The chairman readily acknowledged that the 2007 bill will face two major challenges that were not present when the 2002 bill was originally crafted: fiscal pressures and the impact of trade policy. Chambliss said the current budget deficits have placed new fiscal pressures on the bill. But he also voiced optimism that agriculture will not see federal support backslide. He said the 2002 bill maintained funding for a safety net, and made it a fixture of federal farm policy for years to come.

"We have secured the baseline," he said.

Along with the fiscal concerns, he cited the pressures of the World Trade Organization and negotiations over trade policy. Chambliss said he has not been a fan of the North American Free Trade Agreement and other major trade agreements. He charged that they sacrificed the interests of agriculture for the sake of the high-tech and manufacturing sectors.

But Chambliss said the current WTO negotiations have taken a different tone, and agriculture has been elevated to the profile it deserves.

"We are now the number one issue in the WTO," he said.

In his luncheon talk, the senator also suggested that demands for immigration law reform are fast becoming a number one item on the nation's agenda. "It's the most emotional, sensitive, politically charged issue I've seen in my 11 years in Congress," he said.

Chambliss said he would work for compromise in immigration reform. It's "critically important" to agriculture to have access to the labor being provided by immigrants, he said.

Chambliss also offered his assurances that there will be a resolution in the short term to Japan's renewed ban on U.S. beef over fears of spreading mad cow disease. The senator said that it was a "mistake on our end" that allowed beef to enter Japan that did not meet the requirements of the latest agreement.

He also applauded Minnesota's "innovation and creativity" on alternative fuels. He pointed to the U.S. energy bill that calls for increasing ethanol use in the country over the next six years from 4.5 billion gallons to 8.5 billion gallons while also setting a target of 500 million gallons of biodiesel.

Minnesota's role as a leader in renewable energy will set the pace for the rest of the country, according to Chambliss. "We're going to follow your lead."

In other expo events:

n Gov. Tim Pawlenty offered the opening address to a standing-room-only crowd. He used the opportunity to tout his administration's support for bolstering the state's livestock industry.

He also spoke about agriculture's increasing importance to meeting U.S. energy needs. Pawlenty said the country has been "asleep at the switch on energy policy for a long, long time."

The governor said the country should have been aggressively pursuing renewable and alternative energy sources since the energy crisis during President Jimmy Carter's term of office in the late 1970s.

That said, the governor said he believes other states are following Minnesota's lead in developing renewable energy such as ethanol. Non-corn producing states are looking toward other plant sources to produce ethanol, as well as toward waste woods and other cellulose materials, he said.

n Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson emphasized the importance of being more aggressive to increase Minnesota farm exports to China.

Hugoson, fresh from a trip to China with the governor, told those attending the Minnesota Ag Expo on Tuesday that U.S. exports to the world's most populous nation are actually increasing.

However, the United States is losing market share in China to other countries that are more aggressive about exporting their products.

Hugoson said the days when the United States dominates world agricultural trade are "no longer a given." American farmers need to be more aggressive about selling their products against ever stronger competition from overseas producers.