Biofuels makes list of priorities at Farm Bill conference

By Kris Bevill | November 08, 2011

More than 200 people representing all sectors of agriculture gathered in Fargo, N.D., Nov. 7-8 to discuss issues related to the 2012 Farm Bill during a conference jointly organized by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Won Koo, professor and director of the Center for Agricultural Policy and Trade Studies at North Dakota State University. Elected officials from North Dakota and Minnesota, agriculture policy experts from across the United States, state and national agriculture interest groups and ethanol industry representatives gathered to dissect anticipated changes to farm policy under the broad umbrella of the Farm Bill as legislators work to craft the latest five-year plan. Crop insurance policy quickly rose to the top of producers’ list of priorities for the bill, followed closely by funding for agriculture research and biofuels programs.

Michael Scuse, acting under secretary for the USDA’s Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services pointed out that agriculture is responsible for one of every 12 jobs in the U.S. and is currently in the midst of a prosperous time period. However, the House and Senate agriculture committees’ recently recommended $23 billion reduction to the 2012 Farm Bill leaves little doubt that program cuts will be made and producers will need to find ways to do more with less, he said. One of the USDA’s priorities is to present the Farm Bill as being more than just about “the farm” and instead drawing attention to its broad focus, which includes nutrition funding, research and energy, he said. “We need to make clear to the 98 percent of Americans who don’t farm that this bill affects everyone,” he said.

Darin Anderson, president of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, ranked ethanol policy as third on the group’s list of priorities, after crop insurance and revenue-based farm programs, and offered first-hand experience of the important role blender pumps can play in expanding ethanol’s market share. “We have a great blender pump marketing program in this state,” he said. “E85 sales have increased by well over 100 percent in the past year because of these pumps that have been installed. It’s a great program and if we can expand that in the United States it would be great for the industry.” North Dakota’s blender pump program provides reimbursements for retailers who install blender pumps. The program is largely state-funded, but one of the national programs in jeopardy of being cut in the 2012 Farm Bill, the Renewable Energy for America Program, was used this year to provide infrastructure incentives in all states and appears to be the industry’s current best chance at receiving federal infrastructure assistance. In her remarks at the conference, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., indicated that REAP may be spared in the Farm Bill, but the committees have yet to release firm details.

Many speakers addressed the uncertainty surrounding Farm Bill specifics and said the process being used to craft this legislation is unlike any method used before. House and Senate ag committees were expected to submit a detailed reduction plan to a 12-member Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction on Nov. 1 but failed to meet their deadline. The committees are now anticipated to submit plans by Nov. 11.

The joint select committee is scheduled to unveil a 10-year debt reduction plan to Congress on Nov. 23, which will be voted on by Dec. 23. Conrad said it is in the best interest of the ag community for a Farm Bill to be agreed upon this year, but stressed the importance of preparing a defendable, well-crafted policy over simply meeting a deadline. The secrecy surrounding policy negotiations has caused many stakeholders to criticize the process, but Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, told conference attendees they shouldn’t necessarily be concerned with closed-door meetings. “We have our champions, the chairs and ranking members [of the agriculture committees] who are there fighting for our efforts,” he said. “They’re going to do the best they can with what they’ve got to work with.”