After a taxing farm bill process, House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) could opt to take it easy this year and focus on one issue, maybe two. Instead, the ag panel chief has a packed agenda for 2009 and into 2010.
In a recent exclusive interview with Farm Journal, Peterson detailed his to-do list. First up is USDA implementation of the farm bill, including the budget proposal by the Barack Obama administration for fiscal year 2010.
No more to cut. When it comes to the budget, Peterson says: "My position is that we have already made our cuts. We did the bill in regular order, and we paid for it. We went through hell and cut crop insurance and other things, and I feel we've done our part.”
Nevertheless, Peterson says, his committee will continue to comb through nutrition and food stamps, crop insurance and conservation programs. He says they have already identified potential savings in conservation programs, but does not provide details.
Not going there. The Obama administration is proposing to deny direct payments to "large agribusinesses,” farmers with sales of more than $500,000. This is a provision that even backers of tighter payment limits, such as Senate Ag Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), think is unwise.
Peterson's stance isn't about keeping the payments intact, it's about not wanting to wade back into the farm bill. "We are not going to open the farm bill,” he stresses. "We are not
going to go back into payment limits.”
Enter Vilsack. Peterson has spoken to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack about the changes to what is considered "actively engaged” in farming for 2009 and the potential for more changes in 2010. "They [USDA] are in this mode that they're going to have one set of rules this year and another set of rules next year,” Peterson complains. "Well, that's the worst of all worlds. You're going to have farmers running around trying to get all these entities reorganized and then do it all again next year. Apparently, he [Vilsack] can't do anything about it. I asked him, ‘Don't do this twice. If you're going to change it, do it all at once.' But they claim they can't change it, so I don't know what is going to happen.”
Vilsack's initial focus on food and nutrition makes Peterson a bit nervous. He agrees that Vilsack almost appears to be going out of his way to avoid talking about production agriculture. We asked if he was concerned about that. His response: "Oh, yeah.” Peterson's not convinced that there will be folks in USDA subcabinet positions who will pick up the production agriculture focus.
Climate bill. Getting a marker in place on climate change is one objective Peterson thinks will benefit farmers. While work on the overall issue of climate change will probably not be completed this calendar year, Peterson intends to move a bill out of his committee. "We have decided to put a bill together to delineate how farmers could be compensated if we end up with some kind of carbon cap and trade,” he says. "If we don't become proactive on this, we could be in a bad situation if something actually happens.”
Ethanol matters. The ethanol industry is high on Peterson's agenda, which includes seeking a boost in the ethanol blend percentage from the current 10%. While he expects the backing of President Obama and Secretary Vilsack, Peterson says he's not sure yet about Energy Secretary Steven Chu. "If he has good sense, he would understand that if he wants cellulosic ethanol, he better support corn ethanol,” Peterson says. "We built this market. If we aren't there, they will never get cellulosic. That's my message: You may not like corn, you may not like what we're doing, you may hear all this stuff from the grocery manufacturers, but the reality is if you want to build a second generation [of biofuels], it's going to be built on ethanol. Because the first cellulosic ethanol is going to be at those corn ethanol plants out of corn plants. That's what going to happen first,” he emphasizes.
As for the precarious position in which some in the ethanol industry find themselves, Peterson says he's told executives to "hang in there until next year.” That's when he predicts things will be back in balance for the industry. "It looks to me with the plants that are shuttered that this thing is going to come back. I could be wrong,” he admits.
Bottom line: Peterson continues to be one of the strong voices for U.S. agriculture in Washington and is not afraid to take positions on issues that don't sit well with some, including the Obama administration.
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- Early Spring 2009