Energy, trade, disaster: Farmers' changing needs shaping '07 farm bill debate

MARSHALL -- Look for a groundbreaking debate as the Agricultural Committee for the U.S. House of Representatives takes up debate on the 2007 farm bill.

MARSHALL -- Look for a groundbreaking debate as the Agricultural Committee for the U.S. House of Representatives takes up debate on the 2007 farm bill.

House committee members indicated their interest in possibly creating an energy title as part of the farm bill for the first time. Support for the proposal came from some of the 15 committee members who joined U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson for a formal committee hearing held Saturday at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.

"We need to get out of the bondage to OPEC and we know how to do it,'' said U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell, R-Iowa, a committee member. "We can grow it out of the ground.''

Boswell's statement came after the visiting committee members heard more than four hours of testimony from Minnesota and South Dakota farmers and ranchers on what they would like to see in a new farm bill. It marked the 10th such hearing that Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, has hosted outside of the nation's capital in recent weeks.

Fourteen producers were invited to testify in Marshall. Most voiced support for crafting a 2007 bill that is an extension of the current bill.


Committee members are well aware of the current bill's popularity and would like to keep the safety net provisions it provides farmers in place, Peterson told reporters prior to the hearing.

But he also warned that the committee faces a major challenge. President George W. Bush's negotiators at the World Trade Organization talks recently offered a 60 percent cut in direct subsidies to farmers, he said. He warned that the majority members of the agricultural committee will be under pressure from their party to cut funding for the 2007 bill.

"It's not going to be easy,'' said Peterson.

In contrast, support for farmer-produced energy was easy to find on both sides of the aisle at the hearing. Goodlatte was among those who offered support.

He also noted that his previous support has drawn fire back home. Virginia's large poultry industry is heavily dependent on corn raised outside the state's borders. Virginia poultry producers voiced their concerns about how demand for corn to produce ethanol could affect corn prices, according to Goodlatte.

Committee members heard identical concerns on this end of the Corn Belt too. Pete Rothfork, a Melrose turkey producer, told committee members that the current support for ethanol could prove "devastating'' to turkey producers if there is a small corn crop.

Rep. Peterson told reporters that the renewable fuels industry has taken off "like a rocket.'' He told participants at the hearing that the solution will be to develop an ethanol industry that converts switch grass and other cellulose into fuel as well as corn. He also offered the idea of creating a corn reserve to assure adequate supplies for both livestock and ethanol during years of poor production.

Just what sort of support a new farm bill might provide farm-produced fuels was not discussed, but U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota's First District held up Minnesota's 10 percent ethanol mandate as a model. He said the biggest challenge facing farmer-produced fuels is the access to markets, which he said are 97 percent controlled by the petroleum industry.


Along with support for renewable energy, another change to be debated for the 2007 farm bill is the growing call to make a disaster provision a permanent part of the bill. Currently, it requires an act of Congress to address major and multi-year disasters, such as a drought.

Committee members said they have heard interest from farmers across the country in somehow wedding a multi-year disaster program with the current crop insurance program. The need was underscored by Rob Rynnings of Kennedy who farms with his brother Tim near the Canadian border. Rynnings said the two lost $238,000 in working capital due to crop losses last year, despite the crop insurance they carried.

"A dire need,'' is how Larry Larson, a Red River Valley potato producer, described the need for a disaster provision.

Larson also raised an issue that is sure to ignite plenty of the coming debate in Washington. He charged that many trade agreements benefit foreign producers at the expense of U.S. farmers.

Committee member Rep. Charlie Melancon, R-Louisiana, pointed out that last year for the first time ever the U.S. imported more food than it exported.

Some of the growers testifying complained U.S. policy was aimed more at "free'' rather than "fair'' trade for U.S. growers.

On other hand, livestock producers such as Pat Fitzsimmons, a Dassel pork producer, told the committee that access to foreign markets is critical to his industry's growth. He told committee members that U.S. pork exports have increased in value 289 percent since the implementation of NAFTA in 1994 and the Uruguay Round Agreement in 1995.

Yet in a sign of the debate already taking shape, Brewster corn producer Ron Obermoller said that for most commodity producers, building a safety net into the farm bill was far more important than foreign trade agreements. With a federal farm safety net in place, it's possible to put a bottom number on the application for financing at the bank, Obermoller told committee members. "There's no way to build a figure on market access on the bottom line,'' he said.

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