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Federal bill may aid state farmers

ST. PAUL - Minnesota farmland could serve as a laboratory for new federally directed research into the next phase of renewable energy.

Congress has begun writing new federal agriculture legislation, which will replace the existing farm bill that expires in September. While the 2007 farm bill is still months away from completion, recent work by the House Agriculture Committee indicates Minnesota stands to benefit from a greater focus on plant-based energy and fuel production.

The bill could establish several areas around the country where farmers would grow crops believed to be viable renewable energy sources, such as switchgrass.

"One will probably be in Minnesota," said Rep. Collin Peterson, who represents the state's 7th District and is lead farm bill author in the House. He said it is too early to pinpoint an area of the state.

The bill also could provide loan guarantees to help build the first commercial cellulosic ethanol plants, Peterson said in an interview. But his intent is to push for more research without yet committing to particular plant sources.

"That will give us enough experience to make sure this works, but it doesn't set up an ongoing program that you can't abandon if you have to," said Peterson, a Detroit Lakes Democrat.

Senate agriculture committee members have the same thing in mind, though they have not started drafting their version of the next five-year farm bill.

"Clearly, Minnesota will be pushing for some kind of project on the cellulosic ethanol," Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar said during a recent interview.

Peterson assigned several House agriculture subcommittees to prepare the farm bill's 10 sections. Eight of those have been drafted, including language addressing agricultural research, rural economic development and a bolstered energy policy.

The House should finish its bill before Congress' Fourth of July recess, Peterson said, but some controversial issues remain unresolved. Those include determining how the agriculture programs will be paid for, which may not become clear until the House and Senate negotiate a compromise bill, Peterson said.

The Senate agriculture committee is not expected to begin marking up its version of the farm bill until late this month.

However, both Klobuchar and fellow Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman said initial discussions suggest there will be a similar focus on energy in the Senate bill.

The legislation should push the country ahead on cellulosic ethanol and begin providing a new source of income for rural America, the Senate's chief farm bill architect said.

"I think this is going to be the major part ... of the farm bill, and it's going to have a lot of impact on rural economic development," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said during a renewable fuels hearing last month.

In a recent conference call with Minnesota reporters, Coleman said the farm bill should also "mitigate strains" on the livestock industry as a result of the ethanol boom's effect on feedstock prices.