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A bountiful harvest season arrives at last

WASHINGTON - Farmers in many rural communities across America are expressing more optimism about the future than they have in years. Though months-long drought conditions persist in much of the United States, there are reasons for real hope in ma...

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WASHINGTON - Farmers in many rural communities across America are expressing more optimism about the future than they have in years. Though months-long drought conditions persist in much of the United States, there are reasons for real hope in many areas thanks to higher market prices for corn, soybeans, wheat and other commodities.

For farmers accustomed to contending with skyrocketing expenses and stubbornly low prices - corn selling for about $2 a bushel is an often-cited example - this upward, grain-based rally is as welcome as slow, steady rains on parched soil.

The reason behind the renewed faith in farm communities is the growing belief that a major and possibly long-term change has occurred in the commodity price cycle. Increasingly, it seems the farm economy is one of the few bright spots in an overall U.S. economy dampened by the nationwide housing slump.

According to American Farm Bureau Federation senior economist Terry Francl, the increased use of corn to produce ethanol is just one of a multitude of events that have transpired to change market conditions. He thinks agriculture is just beginning to see the results of changes that have been brewing for several years.

"The world's supply and demand needs for all the major crops have tightened progressively over several years," Francl says. "At the same time, economic growth here in the U.S. and worldwide has been strong, particularly with the emergence of China's growing economy. And the decline in the value of the U.S. dollar means our corn, soybeans and other commodities are good buys for other countries."

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Francl says it also is important to remember that the boom in biofuels production isn't unique to the U.S.

Combined, these factors add up to promising times in much of rural America. At the Chicago Board of Trade, the price of new crop soybeans for November recently surged past $10 a bushel - the highest price in three years and one that many farmers thought highly improbable not that long ago.

Francl acknowledges the nature of markets is fickle, but he believes these prices may be here to stay for awhile. He believes soybeans will set the tone, at least until the size of the South American crop is firmly established. If U.S. soybeans trade in the $10- to $12-a-bushel range, that means corn must trade at $4 to $5 a bushel to retain enough planted corn acreage, he says.

All that said, however, not everyone in rural America is celebrating. Folks whose livelihoods depend heavily on raising cattle, hogs, poultry and other livestock are rightly concerned about the effects of higher grain prices on their bottom lines as they pay more for feed. Cattle feeders have been affected most acutely. Midwest feeders who have ready access to the byproducts of ethanol production as an alternate feedstuff to corn have remained in the black, while many feedlots from Kansas to Texas have seen their bottom lines turn toward the red.

Everything taken together, however, these are welcome times in much of American agriculture, with many farmers giving extra thanks for a long-anticipated, bountiful harvest. Anne Keller

Editor's Note: Keller is director of news services for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Mississippi River deserves better

MANKATO, Minn. - There is an aerial-view photograph that has for years been used to gain support for projects to clean up the Minnesota River. It shows a stretch of the Mississippi where the Minnesota empties into it.

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Above the Minnesota, the water flowing from the Mississippi's headwaters in northern Minnesota is relatively clear. But the Minnesota is a cocktail of chemical-ridden sediment that turns the Mississippi cloudy and dirty downstream. The image undoubtedly helped in efforts to reduce farmland runoff, upgrade city sewer plants and implement other projects that have made the Minnesota cleaner.

The Minnesota is the first major tributary to pollute the mighty river, but imagine all the other rivers dumping into the Mississippi as it makes its 2,200-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

A sobering new report by the National Academy of Sciences finds that while some states are attempting to improve water quality, there is no federal focus on protecting the Mississippi and other rivers as required under the Clean Water Act. The report, funded by Minnesota-based McKnight Foundation, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must be more aggressive in improving the water that has created a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.

While states should be lauded for efforts in improving their rivers, it must be the federal government's responsibility to coordinate the cleanup of the river that cuts through the center of the United States.

The other key players in improving the rivers must be USDA and Congress. The new farm bill should include much more focus on conservation programs that idle fragile farmland and USDA should target areas most prone to erosion for conservation efforts.

The nation's premier river has given much to our economy, history and identity. It deserves better than we've given it in return.

Mankato (Minn.) Free Press

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