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Published May 09, 2008, 02:52 PM

Farm legislation passes conference committees

House, Senate expected to consider Farm Bill next week

By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe

WORTHINGTON — New, long-overdue federal farm legislation overcame a major hurdle Thursday when it was approved by both the House and Senate conference committees. The $300 billion farm bill is expected to head to the full House and Senate as early as Wednesday.

During a conference call with Minnesota reporters early Thursday afternoon, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman said he sees the legislation as a good bill, despite a veto threat already issued by President Bush.

Among the priorities Coleman highlighted in the farm bill legislation are:

* An increase in the Milk Income Loss Contract program from its current rate of 34 percent to 45 percent to provide a needed safety net for Minnesota’s dairy producers;

* Increased commitment to nutrition, food and biofuels;

* Approval to convert sugar to ethanol production;

* Additional opportunities for people to invest in locally owned biorefineries;

* Maintenance of the agriculture disaster assistance program (funded at nearly $4 billion);

* Safety nets, including counter-cyclical payments for commodities, and

* A new, $1 tax credit for cellulosic ethanol production.

“This (legislation) will have an accelerated, substantial commitment to cellulosic,” Coleman said of the tax credit.

While Coleman said he has talked to a lot of people on both sides of the sugar-to-ethanol debate, he sees its inclusion in the farm bill as positive news for Minnesota’s beet sugar producers to the north.

“It’s important that we look at a whole other range of renewables,” he said. “It is actually cost-effective for us to do this.”

Coleman said converting excess sugar to ethanol serves as a safety cushion for the U.S. in trade agreements, and contributes to the nation’s quest for independence from foreign oil.

The safety net for commodities is another important piece of legislation in the proposed farm bill, said Coleman.

“We have the safest, most affordable food supply in the world and we have it because we’ve had this safety net in place. This safety net is there for when the bad times come,” he said.

While the farm bill legislation offers much in the arena of protecting America’s farmers from market fluctuations, it also includes tighter farm payment reforms. The proposal calls for a cap on direct payments that will keep farmers with an adjusted gross income of $750,000 or more from receiving payments. Non-farmers who have an adjusted gross income of more than $500,000 will not be allowed to collect payments.

Though some may view the direct payments caps as too high, Coleman explained that it was a compromise with legislators who serve the southern states.

“Farmers in the south need higher limits … they have higher costs of production, higher equipment costs and they have good years and bad years,” Coleman said. “The bottom line is Ted Turner isn’t going to be getting farm payments. We all agree with that.”

Despite its reference as a federal farm bill, Coleman pointed out that roughly 67 percent of the bill’s total budget is nutrition, with less than 15 percent of the money going to people who actually produce the nation’s food supply. In fact, the largest increases proposed in the legislation are for nutrition programs ($10 billion increase), including a substantial boost in the emergency food assistance program. He said the bill also includes “the largest commitment” to conservation of any of the previous federal farm policies.

Coleman said if the president vetoes the farm bill legislation, he will “work very, very hard to override that veto.”

“At a time when we are facing a lot of challenges across this country, (passage of) this farm bill is critical,” he added. “This bill is a compromise reflecting different needs around the country. The president doesn’t see that, and I think he’s wrong. We all need to come together; otherwise we won’t have a farm bill.”