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Farm bill offers bushels of benefits for some state farmers

After more than a month of partisan squabbling, the Senate passed the farm bill last week. That brings Minnesota farmers a step closer to cashing in on new sugar supports and a $5.1 billion trust fund to help the agriculture industry through natural disasters — assuming the president decides to sign the bill.

Those provisions are just two on the White House’s long list of complaints about the farm law reauthorization. As in 2002, when the last measure was written, the administration is advocating deep cuts in farm spending that would make U.S. agricultural programs less vulnerable to international trade disputes and generally less expensive.

Although the bill’s new sugar support, which would raise the loan rate for sugar by 1 cent, is a headache for the Administration, it would be a boon to Minnesota’s sugar beet industry. Sugar farmers haven’t seen changes in those subsidies since 1985, says Steve Williams, president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association.

“Costs have gone up a lot since then, when you look at fuel, fertilizer, inflation,” Williams said. “It’s very important.”

Bill includes sugar beet protection
Sugar beet growers in Minnesota also helped persuade the Senate Agriculture Committee to make the government responsible for buying up sugar surpluses to make ethanol. The provision is meant to protect growers from plummeting prices that may result when Mexico starts exporting tariff-free sugar to the United States next year.

Minnesota farmers also are prepared to defend their new disaster trust fund against attacks from budget-hawk lawmakers and President Bush, who considers the pot of money a waste of taxpayer money and opposes proposed tax increases that would help pay for it.

This year, more than 60 of Minnesota’s 87 counties were declared agricultural disasters, and Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson says that extra cash is needed more than ever. When frost, flood and drought hit regions of the farming industry, the news is typically slow to make its way to Congress, Peterson says. That means farmers sometimes wait years for help.

Things in Washington go a lot faster when a natural disaster makes headlines all over the country, as Hurricane Katrina did, Peterson said.

“When you have disasters [here], there’s always log rolling and political gamesmanship,” he said. “With Katrina, we didn’t see that like we have in the past.”

Minnesota’s Collin Peterson in pivotal position
For now, the sugar provisions and the disaster fund are in safe hands. As head of the House farm committee, Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson says he’ll do his best to preserve both as a select group of lawmakers combine the House and Senate versions of the farm bill.

As for the complaints, Peterson is vague on details but says he has a plan to win over the White House. That plan could include last-minute negotiations on new limits on how much money farmers can collect from the federal government every year. That might be enough to persuade the president to sign the bill, Washington farm lobbyists say.

Take a proposal by Sen. Amy Klobuchar that was narrowly rejected by the Senate. The Minnesota Democrat wants to prevent full-time farmers who make more than $750,000 and part-time farmers making more than $250,000 from collecting federal dollars. The plan would target wealthy landowners who earn little or no money from farming and agribusinesses that get the bulk of farm subsidies.

Collin Peterson, however, is not sold on Klobuchar’s plan but does agree that the final bill should limit payments to hobby farmers and “all those people getting us bad press.”

In Minnesota, Doug Peterson isn’t too worried about the president’s veto threat; a tough campaigning year for Republicans who count on the rural vote is pressure enough.

“He’s going to sign anyway,” he said. “It’s an election year.”

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