Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Ethanol and next farm bill

From the Strib.

First off, Congressman Walz will serve on the Ag Committee, to be chaired by Congressman Peterson! Great news for Minnesota farmers.

WASHINGTON — Demand for ethanol for cars will attract enough support to lead to passage of a major farm bill next year, despite disagreement on subsidy payments for farmers, a key Democrat and the Republican agriculture secretary agreed Tuesday.

Popularity of corn-based ethanol has soared because of high oil and gas prices. But corn prices have risen so high, and surpluses have dropped so low, that lawmakers want to find other crops to make ethanol and keep the industry growing.

"Energy actually may be the engine that pulls this farm bill, or pushes it," Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin said Tuesday after meeting with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

Harkin will chair the Senate Agriculture Committee after Democrats take control of Congress next year, when the nation's farm programs are due for an overhaul.

Johanns argues for distributing dollars more equitably, pointing out that fruit and vegetable growers get no subsidy checks even though their crops are worth as much as subsidized crops — corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton.

Plenty of lawmakers disagree with that proposed change.

But both sides agree on the desire to spur production of ethanol, a grain alcohol that is blended with gasoline to make cleaner-burning fuel.

Harkin and other lawmakers have been talking about using new ethanol crops as a conservation tool. For example, switchgrass has promise as an ethanol source, and it could provide habitat for wild birds during nesting season.

A small amount of sorghum, another feed grain, already is used to make ethanol in the United States. Ethanol is made from sugar cane in Brazil, a country that meets roughly half its fuel demand with ethanol.

Tens of millions of acres of farmland have been taken out of production under conservation programs in the farm bill. It's up in the air whether any of those lands might be used for crops to make ethanol.

That decision hasn't been made, Johanns said.

"Not every conservation acre is going to grow corn; in fact, it's going to be a very small number of acres," Johanns said at a news conference with Harkin following their meeting. "Are there some out there? Certainly. But today, I think the gain would be quite small."

Johanns said he and Harkin have similar goals for conservation programs. Harkin's counterpart in the House, Minnesota Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, is pushing the idea of a conservation program that would pay farmers to grow around 5 million acres of switchgrass and other non-corn crops for ethanol.

The big question is whether Congress will provide money to pay for new energy or conservation programs.

Democrats are instituting a rule that says if lawmakers want to raise spending for subsidies or conservation payments, they have to pay for it with budget cuts elsewhere.

Harkin said the need for domestic sources of energy justifies enough money for farm programs.
"There is a groundswell of support in this country that we need energy independence, that we have to produce more biofuels," Harkin said. "Well, then, how do we promote that? How do we start moving in that direction?"

More ethanol and other renewable fuels are the answer, Harkin said.

A former Nebraska governor, Johanns grew up on a dairy farm in neighboring Iowa, Harkin's home state.

"You can have Republicans and Democrats absolutely in lockstep agreement on certain issues in the farm bill, and it has nothing to do with parties," Johanns said. "These issues tend to be commodity-driven."

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