The 2007 farm bill is a critical issue for farmers across the country. Congressmen Collin Peterson, ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, and Rubén Hinojosa, Democratic from Texas, brought that message home to Texans at a recent town hall meeting in Weslaco, Texas. Both agreed on ways that the 2007 farm bill could help both the farmer and the country.

Peterson and Hinojosa are optimistic that the new farm bill will include a permanent disaster relief program for farmers instead of through hoc bills to deal with disasters that have already occurred, bills that often have expensive riders tacked onto them not related to agriculture.

“Farmers and ranchers across the United States are struggling to recover from disastrous floods, droughts and other natural disasters that damaged or destroyed crops and livestock in 2005 and 2006,” said Peterson. Democrats have sought to include agriculture disaster relief in legislation being considered by Congress for more than a year.

Hinojosa agreed: “For months we have been pushing for an increase in disaster and drought assistance, but these efforts have been blocked. Now is the time to debate legislation that is comprehensive and will directly address the losses suffered from natural disasters. Providing this assistance makes sense and will strengthen rural communities and our nation's economy.”

Hinojosa regrets that there has been “no spirit of bipartisanship” that would allow a bill to be passed.

“It's clear that the country will have a disaster some place every year,” Peterson said. Hinojosa agreed. In 2005, the USDA declared that 80 percent of all U.S. counties either primary or contiguous disaster areas, while 70 percent have already been declared disaster areas in 2006. Peterson says at this point many Republicans agree with him, and that the bill will reach the floor of the House of Representatives.

Peterson said the farm bill also must deal with energy. “Right now,” he said, “we're funding both sides of the war on terror.”

Peterson said the United States has to curb dependence on foreign oil where the profits are going to countries funding terrorism. He stressed the importance of an aggressive energy program to produce biofuels that would be part of the 2007 farm bill. “The quicker we can get off foreign oil dependence, the better off we'll be.” And that's where the farmer comes in.

Alternative energy from agriculture offers a great opportunity for the rural community. Peterson stressed the importance of developing the biofuel industry in the United States. “It's the private sector that is going to have to do it.”

Minnesota has taken the lead in developing biodiesel and ethanol plants. Throughout the state, 19 plants produce ethanol from corn and soybeans. Owned by the private sector, all are highly profitable. The biofuel industry is spreading across the country, and provides opportunities for investors to make money. Ethanol can be derived from many plants, including wheat, corn stalks, sorghum and even mesquite.

“I'm for everything,” Peterson said. “Coal, nuclear, anything” that could allow the U.S. to be energy independent.

“We have to place our resources into research.” Grants and loans from the government are needed for research on many components of the biofuel industry including cellulose. The fibers in cellulose can eventually be converted into ethanol and other biofuels, so there are huge incentives to learn more about how plants produce and modify cellulose.

The biofuel industry is growing by leaps and bounds. According to the American Coalition on Ethanol, this year the U.S. ethanol industry will grow to provide more than 5 billion gallons of this renewable fuel to our country's supply. And The New York Times reported “about 76 commercial biodiesel plants are in production today, up from 22 in 2004. Some companies are planning refineries capable of brewing up to 100 million gallons a year. Nationwide production of the fuel tripled last year over 2004 to 75 million gallons.”

“We have to fuel this country and clean up the environment,” said Peterson. And if the 2007 farm bill passes with the provisions that we propose, it will be a big step towards that goal.