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Harkin sees a new commodity in the next farm bill -- switchgrass

Agriculture.com Staff 05/15/2007 @ 4:16pm

Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, made a strong pitch for spending some commodity program money, perhaps $1 billion over five years, on supporting production of crops for cellulosic ethanol.

With gasoline prices hitting a $3.07-per-gallon national average over the weekend, Harkin said it is more important than ever to promote the development of biofuels, partly by expanding an energy title from the 2002 farm bill in the next farm law.

"I'm pushing for a much more ambitious energy title in the next bill," Harkin told reporters during a telephone press conference Tuesday.

Harkin said that he may even start with the energy title when his committee starts marking up a bill in June.

Harkin isn't proposing to gut the current commodities programs, which are projected to cost about $7 billion a year if current market conditions continue. He said he wants corn and soybeans to remain profitable.

But Harkin seems to be looking at some of the $26 billion that would be spent over the next five years on direct payments as a source of money for supporting crops that could eventually produce ethanol from cellulose, crops that include switchgrass.

"We have to have a balance. I will be consulting with the members of the committee on this balance," he said.

Giving money to farmers to grow those crops, "would be something like direct payments," he said.

When asked if other members of the committee support using some direct payments funds for this, he said, "some yes, some, no."

Harkin has been critical of direct payments, which go to land with a history of raising farm program crops like corn, cotton or rice.

"These payments are not really helping out renters," he said, adding that they contribute to higher land prices.

The payments were also highlighted in a Washington Post series of articles on commodity programs that showed some of them going to affluent rural landowners who don't farm.

Harkin seems to be getting less support for changing the use of direct payments and other commodity programs from Senator Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat who heads the Senate Budget Committee and who is a member of the Agriculture Committee.

Conrad is rumored to be considering introducing his own commodity-friendly version of the farm bill in the committee. And last month his office released a statement that criticized the Washington Post series.

"There are many road blocks ahead as we write this new farm bill.  We're fighting against a growing public opinion fed by an East Coast media that simply doesn't understand farming," Conrad said in the statement.  "This bill is critically important, and we must work together to gather support for America's family farmers."

Conrad's North Dakota is the nation's top spring wheat producing state. The National Association of Wheat Growers strongly opposes cutting direct payments, arguing that they've been the main benefit in the 2002 farm bill for wheat farmers. And NAWG has proposed increasing spending on the payments.

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