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Delegation pleased with Farm Bill programs

By Edward Felker

Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Minnesota lawmakers on Thursday endorsed the $300 billion, five-year Farm Bill that funds crop and nutrition programs and was crafted in part by Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Detroit Lakes, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

The bill emerged from a House-Senate conference committee but now must win enough backing from enough lawmakers to overcome a threatened presidential veto.

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Mankato and a member of the House Agriculture Committee, saw three priorities included in the bill, including a pilot program to let farmers grow fruits and vegetables without permanently losing their eligibility under traditional crop subsidy programs.

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The Farm Flex program language would target four or more Midwestern states, though the final details were still uncertain. Walz also won provisions to streamline the enrollment of organic farm acres into federal conservation programs and, with Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., incentives for landowners to rent or sell to beginning farmers and ranchers.

Walz, in a statement, said he was excited to see the bill moving forward after months of deal making. "This bill makes important new investments in nutrition, conservation, rural development and energy programs, and continues to provide a farm safety net that kicks in when crop prices are low, and tapers off when crop prices are high," he said.

Peterson, at a news conference, said lawmakers are still faced with getting the bill into law next week. Bush has threatened to veto the bill if it did not limit direct payments and other subsidies to farmers whose incomes topped $200,000. The deal announced Thursday sets caps at $750,000 for farmers and $500,000 for nonfarmers, down from the current limits of $2.5 million.

"We’re not at the finish line. We still have to get the bill through the House and Senate. We hope there's a good vote," Peterson said. He commended the deal for increasing conversation, boosting the money spent to encourage cellulosic ethanol production and keeping a safety net for farmers, while adding $10 billion to nutrition programs. Nutrition spending makes up about two-thirds of the bill's cost over five years.

"We have responded, kept a safety net for farmers and made a huge contribution to the people who need help now because of food prices being where they are," he said.

Minnesota Sens. Norm Coleman, a Republican running for re-election, and freshman Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, both serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee and both praised the bill.

Coleman previously said he would work to round up votes to override a veto, and reiterated that stance Thursday. "This process has been about compromise from day one, and the bipartisan agreement reached by the conference committee is a bill that for America contains significant reforms all sides can agree on," Coleman said in a statement.

Coleman said he was glad to see the bill include a number of his priorities, including help for Minnesota sugar beet farmers, continuation of the federal milk support program, increases in emergency food aid to food banks and shelters, a permanent disaster relief program, and loans for upgraded grain storage capacity.

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Klobuchar was pleased to see payment limit caps that were similar to ones she proposed last year that failed to overcome a filibuster on the Senate floor. She said the conference agreement also provides a "strong safety net" for farmers if commodity prices fall, while also meeting her goal of increasing the production of cellulosic ethanol. "I am particularly pleased that the incentives for cellulosic biofuels, the next generation of renewable, homegrown energy, remain in the bill."

A spokesman for Rep. John Kline, R-Lakeville, said the congressman planned to comment when the bill is brought to the House floor next week.

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