Farm bill boasts roots in farm country

WASHINGTON -- The next federal farm bill will be written on Capitol Hill, but the preparation has taken Collin Peterson far from the nation's capital.

WASHINGTON -- The next federal farm bill will be written on Capitol Hill, but the preparation has taken Collin Peterson far from the nation's capital.

In recent weeks Peterson, the new House Agriculture Committee chairman, has traveled to St. Paul, South Dakota and Utah to tell agriculture groups about his vision for the next farm bill and get their input.

Many of the current policies are working, Peterson said, but it's time to place more emphasis on renewable fuel alternatives, such as corn-based ethanol and other plant-derived fuels. That will be among his priorities as he writes new farm legislation.

Farmers in and around Peterson's sprawling 7th District in western Minnesota already understand the benefits of renewable fuel production, he said.

"The reason it works in our areas is the farmers have bought into four or five ethanol plants and have made a lot of money," Peterson said during a recent interview in his Washington office. "They get it."


Others remain skeptical, particularly in areas of the country where the emerging industry hasn't taken off, Peterson said. But the future of renewable fuels will require involvement around the nation, he said, adding that the five-year federal farm policy will be written with that in mind.

The Detroit Lakes Democrat said his own background puts him in a unique position to sell his plan for the 2007 farm bill to those groups. One upcoming trip will take Peterson to Ohio, where he will try to convince farmers it pays to invest in ethanol plants.

Peterson's colleagues say his new post will benefit the upper Midwest as Congress advances renewable fuel and energy initiatives and debates a permanent disaster relief program for crop farmers.

"Having Collin as chairman of the Agriculture Committee is a big deal to our part of the country," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., a senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

There is support for Peterson among area Republicans as well.

Rep. John Kline, whose 2nd District borders Peterson's in south central Minnesota, said rising corn prices resulting from the booming ethanol industry could hurt livestock farmers who buy corn for feed.

Still, Kline expressed confidence that Peterson will consider such issues.

"Having somebody from Minnesota specifically will make sure that Minnesota interests are certainly being looked at first," Kline said. "That's a good thing probably for Minnesota."


The region is well-represented on both the House and Senate agriculture panels. Peterson's committee will include freshman Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., and potentially fellow Democratic Reps. Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota and Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota.

Along with Conrad, Minnesota Sens. Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., will serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee led by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Farm groups see Peterson's chairmanship as a sign Congress is serious about promoting renewable fuels. Alan Bergman, vice president of the National Farmers Union, said the nine-term congressman could chart the path toward a new long-term energy plan.

Peterson said his committee won't begin drafting its bill until after he receives budget targets, which are expected by March or April. Senators are following a similar plan. The existing farm bill expires in September.

Peterson, a former state lawmaker, said he will direct his subcommittee chairmen to work on the farm legislation in public, which he said isn't always the case in Washington.

"I just think in Minnesota that's how you do things. Out here..." he said, trailing off with a chuckle.

By emphasizing renewable fuels in the farm bill, Peterson said it will gain the backing of metropolitan and rural legislators.

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