Peterson, Walz tout farm bill
FAIRMONT -- It isn't a perfect bill by any means, but Congressmen Tim Walz of Minnesota's 1st District and Collin Peterson of the 5th District say the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 (also known as the Farm Bill) is "pretty good."
Speaking before a crowd of more than 60 farmers and agribusiness people at the Red Rock Center for the Arts in downtown Fairmont Friday, the House Agriculture Committee freshman member Walz and committee chairman Peterson say there is much more work to be done.
"This is not the end -- there are many, many things ahead of us," said Walz as he referenced recent articles in the press regarding Korea's protest of U.S. beef imports.
Trade is one of the major issues to be addressed yet, along with changes in the federal Clean Water Act and restructuring of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Fourteen of the 15 titles in the bill are now law, following a House and Senate override of a presidential veto, explained Peterson of the process. It was the first time in U.S. history that a farm bill became law as a result of a presidential override, and the 108th presidential override ever, added Walz.
The full bill is anticipated to be sent back to President Bush in a couple of weeks, where another override is expected. There are enough votes in both the House and Senate for an override.
"We apologize for taking so long," Peterson told the crowd on Friday. "It just shows you what we're up against in Washington."
He predicts passage of farm bills in the future will be even more difficult.
"The biggest problem I had in getting this bill done was the administration -- they're incompetent," Peterson said.
Emphasis on food
Three-fourths of all new spending in the 2008 farm bill goes to the federal nutrition program, amounting to about 73 percent of the legislation's total budget.
The increase in funding couldn't come at a better time, said Peterson, adding that food shelves around the country are struggling.
"We put a significant amount of money in food banks and food shelves, which is the right thing to do right now," he said.
Despite everything the legislation does to assist those who cannot afford to put food on the table, both Peterson and Walz talked about the perception in Washington, D.C., that the farm bill is nothing but legislation that pads the pockets of rich, corporate farmers.
The farmer has become an easy target in the eyes of many as prices continue to rise for food. Peterson said it is unfair that farmers get the blame, yet nothing is said about the oil industry and the high price for fuel.
Farmers are struggling just as much as everyone else with high fuel costs -- perhaps more because they need fuel to prepare the soil, plant the crops and apply fertilizer.
"We're trying to figure out some way to counter this (perception)," Peterson said. "Frankly, I'm ready to go to war with them. For them to say ethanol is driving up prices is ridiculous."
Gerald Tumbleson, former president of the National Corn Growers Association and farmer from Sherburn, commended Peterson for his tenacity in writing the new farm legislation and talked of the congressman's efforts to get the producer-owned ethanol industry off the ground in Minnesota.
"These little things that you do will make a difference," Tumbleson said. "We do not want you to guarantee us an income. We really want you to give us an opportunity."
Meg Freking, a pork producer from Jackson County, expressed her concerns regarding the availability of corn to maintain the swine industry in Minnesota.
"We're very concerned as producers," she said.
Peterson said current estimates are that 2008 corn production is down 30 percent from a year ago. While the situation is going to take more monitoring, he said less corn is going to result in a "big problem."
"What are we doing exporting two billion bushels of corn if we're going to be in this situation (longer term)?" Peterson asked, and then said Minnesota farmers could get more value out of their crop if they kept it within the state.
"We need to work ... through this. It's about all we can do," he added. "Part of the problem is we sold agricultural products too cheap, for too long.
Farm bill successes
"We've got a pretty good bill," said Peterson of the legislation that will cost taxpayers $58 billion less than the 2002 farm bill. "It wasn't everything I wanted -- it wasn't everything anybody wanted."
That said, there are some points in the bill that are exciting news for people in agriculture.
Tim Henning, Nobles County Farmers Union president, had one word to describe his pleasure in the inclusion of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) in the bill.
"Finally," Henning said after learning of COOL's implementation on Sept. 30.
"In Farmers Union, we've got a saying we were for COOL when it wasn't cool," Henning said. At the same time, however, he's concerned the farm bill legislation may not be the best for farmers in rural Minnesota.
"The cut in the budget came off us," he said. Of great concern to him is the small safety net set in place for farmers.
"We now have a $2.35 to $2.40 per bushel corn safety net, and the cost of production is $3.75 to $4," Henning said. "If we get down to $3 corn, it's going to be a disaster, and if Congress took this long for a farm bill, how are they going to get that done."