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Commentary:Time for Congress to finish Farm Bill

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As Congress digs into federal farm policy this year, “job one” should be enacting a five-year Farm Bill that will give farmers and ranchers in Minnesota and across the country the certainty they need to plan for the future.

At recent Farm Bill meetings I’ve held all over Minnesota, I’ve heard over and over again how important it is to Minnesota producers – and to our state’s economy – that we finish this job.

That’s why I’ve cosponsored legislation nearly identical to the five-year measure that passed the Senate in 2012 with overwhelming bipartisan support. The measure, introduced as a top priority in the Senate, will not only reform and modernize our agriculture programs and strengthen the farm safety net, but also create jobs and economic vitality in communities across our state. Just as importantly, by reforming our agriculture programs, we can save money – tens of billions of dollars – to reduce our budget deficit.

I’m optimistic that in 2013, we won’t see a repeat of last year, when House leaders refused to allow a vote and saddled Minnesota farmers and ranchers with a short-term extension that only runs through September.

One key problem with the temporary Farm Bill is that it shortchanges investments in conservation and energy programs, assistance for beginning farmers and ranchers, and a number of other important programs that help spur jobs and economic development in communities across Minnesota.  This year, I will be pushing to fund those important investments until a permanent Farm Bill is enacted.

I hope that after hearing from farmers and farm leaders from across the country in the past several months, the House leadership now understands how important it is that we put a five-year Farm Bill in place.

Just last month, a top Minnesota farm credit official outlined for me some of the difficulties that uncertainty over future farm policy poses for producers in Minnesota and across the country.  He said farmers are facing the rising cost of inputs like land, machinery, and equipment, as well as another year of possible weather disasters, making it important for them to have certainty about farm policy and about the farm safety net before they invest thousands, even millions, of dollars in their operations.

He also said the lack of a five-year Farm Bill is hurting young and beginning farmers, many of whom have seen their applications for guarantees at their local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office go unprocessed due to the uncertainty of federal farm funding.  

In short, it’s time for Congress to finish the job of passing a five-year Farm Bill.

One of my top priorities during the Farm Bill debate has been to fight for programs that support investment in Minnesota’s energy economy. In fact, the recently introduced Senate Farm Bill includes my Rural Energy for America (REAP) provision, which will help farmers and small businesses save money and earn income by investing in renewable energy and energy efficient technology. This program is used in Minnesota more than in almost any other state and is another example of how our state is a leader in energy innovation.

As a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I was pleased to be named chairman of a key subcommittee this month.  Leading this panel will provide opportunities to promote Minnesota’s and the nation’s renewable energy efforts and to create good jobs across the state and the nation. I believe growth in these sectors is critical to U.S. energy independence and to our future economic competitiveness. 

As I’ve traveled across Minnesota, I’ve seen the energy innovations that are spurring jobs and economic growth, especially in rural communities.  I plan to use this new chairmanship to bolster those kinds of emerging technologies by bringing those Minnesota ideas to Washington, D.C.

There’s a lot happening on federal farm and energy policy, and I’m not going to stop fighting until we give producers the certainty and the tools they need to keep our farm economy strong.

Al Franken is a Democrat who represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.

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