House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson says he plans to have a new farm bill through the House and a House-Senate conference committee and on President Bush's desk for his signature before the 2002 law expires on Sept. 30.

Peterson outlined that ambitious schedule, which he said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin also planned to follow, at a speech at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual meeting in Salt Lake City Jan. 8.

He said he expects the new farm legislation to look “a lot like we have now” with some changes such as a permanent disaster assistance provision. The Minnesota Democrat said he also believes Congress will pass disaster legislation that will cover crop losses in 2005 and 2006.

“We are still intending to get a disaster bill passed for the 2005 and 2006 crop years,” Peterson said. “And, hopefully, we'll get something done in the farm bill so we're not in this shape again.”

He said the House probably would pass a $3 billion disaster bill, and that it would be one of the first things the House considers after completing its “first 100 hours” priorities.

While not providing any specifics on what a permanent disaster program might look like, Peterson said the House ag committee needed to take a look at the role crop insurance might play in such a program.

Renewable fuels

As he has said in previous press briefings, Peterson expects renewable fuels “to drive this farm bill.” Providing funds for conservation programs would also be an issue, he noted in the Farm Bureau speech.

“The House leadership conference is with us on this,” he said. “I go a little further than they do [on energy]. I'm for drilling, nuclear, coal, anything it takes to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

Peterson said that he would like to see 50 percent of the fuel in America be renewable fuel, but it can't come from just corn. “We've got to do cellulosic, too,” he said. “The issue will become: How do we produce the necessary feedstocks?”

More research is needed to figure out what grows best in different parts of the country, and until enough cellulosic ethanol plants are built to provide an adequate market for switchgrass, straw and other feedstocks, the farm bill might be changed to include a program that pays farmers to produce those crops, he said. “The country needs to start growing them now.”

Peterson said the ag committees will have less money to work with in 2007 than they did in the 2002 farm bill. The Congressional Budget Office in February will issue its baseline for farm program spending, and it will be lower because farm programs have come in about $17 billion under budget over the last five years.

Agriculture should get some consideration for saving money, he said, adding that he is pressing the issue with the budget committees.

“It's not going to be easy, but I think we will be able to get the resources.”

Peterson noted that the last two farm bills have taken much longer to pass than the principal authors anticipated. The 2002 farm bill was scheduled to have been completed in the fall of 2002, but was not passed and signed by the president until May 2002.

Peterson said he intends to get the bill out of the House before the August recess and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin intends to do the same. Then Congress could work out a conference agreement over the August break, finish the tough issues in the early part of September and get the bill on the president's desk by the end of that month.