Energy, conservation, research and rural development will be at the heart of a new farm bill under consideration by Sen. Tom Harkin, the incoming chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
"There's a whole new landscape here, and I like the view," said Harkin of the Democrats' recent takeover of Congress.
He said it's time for a "bold, new vision for agriculture" that includes a heavy emphasis on biomass for fuel production while maintaining a safety net for crop growers.
Harkin broke ground in discussing with The Progressive Populist transition payments for farmers who want to switch to biomass crops like switchgrass. He also talked about increasing research on using protein from biomass ethanol production for conversion into feedstocks. Such research could alleviate livestock producer fears about rapidly rising corn costs.
"We're going to make a big push for cellulose," Harkin said. "Corn can't do it all."
President Bush put a national focus on cellulosic ethanol during his last State of the Union Address.
Growing perennial grasses for ethanol production could help commodity crop growers whose program supports are under attack domestically and worldwide, the Iowa populist said. Harkin wants to provide incentives to farmers who make the switch to fuel crops. Planting perennials like switchgrass could work into existing conservation programs.
"We can sell (biofuels incentives) to the general public because it's not just for farmers, but it helps to get us off our dependence on foreign oil," Harkin said.
Corn-based ethanol can provide only about 10% of the nation's fuel needs. Cellulosic ethanol could supplant up to 40% of gasoline demand, some scientists and venture capitalists say.
"This is a whole new field," Harkin said of transition incentives to cellulosic production. He wants to offer more research dollars to speed efficient biomass to ethanol production, assistance to producers in new equipment credits and building new plants, and incentives to farmers in regearing for different types of crop production.
Harkin also stressed that he will push Congress to fully implement the Conservation Security Program that he wrote into the 2002 Farm Bill. The CSP pays farmers for voluntary conservation practices on three tiers. The Bush Administration took money from the program to pay for disaster relief. Harkin said he will consult with the Senate Budget Committee to restore some $4 billion in lost funding for conservation programs.
Fixed payments, once known as "Freedom to Farm" payments, could be history come next summer when Harkin expects to send a new Farm Bill to President Bush for his signature.
"I have never been a fan of them," Harkin said, "and there isn't much public support for them."
Harkin hopes to maintain counter-cyclical payments, strengthen the crop insurance program to act as a safety net against low yields, and cap program payments so large operations don't continue to consume most of the benefits. Harkin also has pushed in the past for a support scheme that would concentrate on revenue versus production. Farmers hurt this year by drought look at $3+ corn with not enough to sell. Improved crop insurance with revenue benchmarks worked in could be the answer.
Harkin is not just thinking out loud. He has much bipartisan support for biofuels, payment caps and conservation programs, including from fellow Ag Committee member Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. Incoming House Ag Committee Chairman Colin Peterson, D-Minn., agrees that the 2002 Farm Bill authored by Harkin will be the framework for 2007.
"We are going to tinker with some of this stuff. We're not going to get rid of the safety net," Peterson told Successful Farming/Agriculture Online.
Capping payments and higher commodity prices (which reduce government outlays) could help provide funding for new initiatives, Harkin said.
"I think we need to seize the opportunity to chart new courses," Harkin said.
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