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Column: Doing our part to keep the farm economy strong

Democrat Al Franken stands in front of reporters Wednesday morning, saying he's optimistic a recount will end with him as a U.S. Senate seat winner.

WASHINGTON -- In December, when the first new Massey Ferguson Tractor built in America in many years rolled off the AGCO assembly line in Jackson, Minn., it was a sure sign that the farm economy is helping to lead the economic recovery in our state and across the country.

With farm prices strong and farm income up, agricultural prosperity is creating jobs -- not only in farming, but also in related industries and small businesses that support our farmers.

When I visited AGCO's newly-expanded plant in Jackson last summer, company officials were excited that demand from farmers helped them create almost 200 new jobs in that rural Minnesota community.

2012 Farm Bill debate beginning

As we move forward in 2012, Minnesota and the rest of the country have an economic stake in continuing to ensure a strong farm economy. This year, Congress will soon take up a new Farm Bill to help give farmers the tools they need to stay prosperous.

The Farm Bill debate will take place at the very time Congress and the President are looking to rein in spending in every part of the budget -- including agriculture. I will press for legislation that meets the needs of Minnesota farmers by providing an adequate safety net to assist when disasters hit or farm prices drop.

As Congressional budget cutters look to cut direct farm payments, crop insurance will become even more important in helping farmers recover from devastating losses. In 2010, crop insurance policies covered 256 million acres, or about 75 percent of all acres planted. I will work with my colleagues on the Agriculture Committee to expand and strengthen this important program.

Investing in innovation and jobs 

As a member of the Senate Energy Committee, I believe that rural energy development can drive job creation in Minnesota. That's why the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) is a top priority for me.

The program provides grants and loan guarantees to farmers and rural small businesses for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, as well as grants to gas stations for blender pump installation. After consulting with Minnesota farm and energy groups, I will soon introduce legislation to improve access to REAP funding, so that Minnesota job creators can take advantage of our state's vast renewable energy potential.

Our nation has made great progress in the development of ethanol and other biofuels, but we need to do more to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The country's first commercial-scale cellulosic biorefinery will begin production in Iowa next year pumping out ethanol made from corncobs and stover. We need to invest in that technology in Minnesota so we can continue to lead America's biofuel movement.

Drivers need to have a choice when they go to the pump, so I'm going to introduce legislation to invest in blender pumps that blend ethanol with gasoline. Automakers say any car that uses gasoline could potentially run on a blend that includes 30 percent ethanol, but we simply don't have enough blender pumps because big oil companies -- who control most gas stations -- don't want the competition.

But blender pumps are just one part of the equation. To foster continued innovation and growth, we need strong support for agriculture research and development. That's why I've fought to fund key agriculture research programs, including USDA's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, which funds critical agriculture research at the University of Minnesota and across the country.

2012 will be an important year for Minnesota farmers, and recent history shows that they are leading the way in our economic recovery. I'm going to continue to work to ensure that Congress does its part to keep our farm economy strong.