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Column: Fighting for the future of Minnesota's farmers

Al Franken on air during his radio show.

WASHINGTON -- Even as a kid growing up in the Minneapolis suburbs, I knew that farms were important to our state's identity--and to its economy. Also, to eating.

And as a senator, I'm proud to support the farmers and producers who have been the lifeblood of our rural communities for generations.

As Minnesota's voice on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, I couldn't be more excited about the opportunities for our farmers in a future powered by clean, renewable, home-grown energy.

After all, Minnesota may not have oil or coal, but we do have wind -- lots of it. And turbines are springing up all across the state, from college campuses to farms. Rural communities can be big wind winners, with farmers and land owners holding a financial stake in clean energy production. The money stays in the local community, generating more economic development. And later this year, I'll be introducing legislation to help more rural Minnesotans get involved in these community-owned wind projects.

But wind isn't the only valuable resource we have in abundance. Despite a contentious debate, I believe that corn ethanol has been good for America's drivers. And the ethanol mandate provides a necessary platform to get us to what's next: cellulosic ethanol.

Cellulosic ethanol is happening. The first commercial-scale cellulosic plant is being built this year in Iowa. And I want Minnesota to capitalize on the energy -- and economic growth -- that could come from wood wastes, grasses and crop residues that don't compete with food.

For instance, scientists from the U of M and Augsburg have developed a new biodiesel production process that uses oil from all kinds of feedstocks, including the seeds of inedible plants.

The future of ethanol is in cellulosic -- and for Minnesota farmers, it's an exciting future, indeed. But if we're going to have cellulosic ethanol tomorrow, we can't abandon corn ethanol today. That's why I've fought attempts to end support for ethanol producers, and supported investment in ethanol infrastructure so we can be ready to take advantage of the next wave of advances in biofuels.

Renewable energy can be a game-changer for the Minnesota farmers who grow the energy feedstocks, host or own the wind turbines and raise the cattle that fuel the digesters. But I'm also committed to standing with producers as they tackle more traditional challenges.

For instance, as farmers across Minnesota know, railroads are able to charge virtually whatever they want -- essentially holding the livelihoods of farm communities hostage. Recently, I testified before the Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads, and urged them to enact new regulations to end the price gouging. Meanwhile, the STB agreed to cut the fee farmers must pay to file a complaint from $20,000 to $350.

Meanwhile, I've pushed for country-of-origin labeling so that our dairy products can stand out in the marketplace. And I'm working to open up new foreign markets to our agricultural exports. Minnesota farmers turn out the best products anywhere, and as senator, I've made it my mission to ensure that people the world over can find that out, working with the Obama administration to improve access to the Chinese and Russian markets for our pork and poultry producers.

With the 2012 Farm Bill just around the corner, it's my job to work with Amy Klobuchar to make sure that the concerns of Minnesota farmers are heard loud and clear on these and many other issues.

It's a job I do with pride. Minnesota farmers have always fed the world. Now they have an opportunity to power our nation's future -- and a new wave of prosperity for rural Minnesota.