Dorr: Farm bill to bolster rural areas

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 10, 2006

By Kari Lucin, staff writer

Undersecretary of Rural Development Tom Dorr of the United States Department of Agriculture listened to U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht and other local officials speak about the 2007 farm bill.

Undersecretary Dorr didn’t speak for long because of the lateness of the hour, but he did express his belief that USDA Rural Development’s goal was to increase the population of rural areas, increase the wealth and improve the quality of education in rural areas and ultimately, to reduce the age of the population in rural areas by attracting young workers.

&8220;This administration will be looking very closely at implementing the opportunities that exist in rural America to improve on the tremendous wealth-creating opportunities,&8221; Dorr said.

Gutknecht, Dorr and many USDA conservation and rural development officials attended a reception at Freeborn-Mower Cooperative Services Wednesday evening. After the pork chops, pasta, beans, and desserts &045; all locally produced by members of the Cooperative &045; were gone, the discussion started.

Gutknecht said keeping farms’ conservation and organic farming practices strong would help stop the flow of people from rural areas into urban areas because the labor-intensive methods wouldn’t be easy for large-scale operations to produce.

&8220;We’ve reinvested $2.9 billion in rural Minnesota,&8221; Gutknecht said. &8220;You’re going to see the next farm bill is going to be a lot more green, with more emphasis on conservation, farmers rewarded for doing the right thing.&8221;

He also emphasized the need for animal agriculture, echoing comments Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson made in Albert Lea back in April.

Animal agriculture is a value-added enterprise, said Hugoson and Gutknecht, allowing farmers to make more money on crop production. It is also so labor intensive that many Minnesota farmers are leaving the swine and dairy business so they can spend more time with their families or be able to leave the farm for a vacation on a regular basis.

Gutknecht said the Rural Development division of the USDA is about two things: emphasizing the quality of life in rural areas and giving grants and low-interest loans to help rural communities flourish.

The 2007 farm bill &045; with a large portion dedicated to rural development &045; will replace the 2002 farm bill, long considered to be favorable to Minnesotans. Many Minnesotans in the agriculture industry are concerned that the 2007 farm bill will not be as favorable to them.

&8220;The fight is always about money,&8221; Gutknecht said, noting that the 2002 farm bill was passed when the government had a budgetary surplus. &8220;It will be hard to get the same dollars authorized.&8221;

Gutknecht may have a key position in the fight to maintain advantageous farm bill funding. He serves on the House Committee on Agriculture, and is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Department Operatioins, Oversight, Dairy, Nutrition and Forestry. That subcommittee oversees the USDA and is in charge of energy and bio-based energy production &045; expected to be crucial in the 2007 farm bill.

&8220;The good news is, I think OPEC has awakened the sleeping giant,&8221; Gutknecht said, referring to the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries and the spike in gas prices since October 2005.

Gutknecht said he was keenly interested in driving prices down and keeping the energy business competitive.

&8220;Every business day, we export $1 billion to foreign countries, many of whom don’t like us, to buy oil. That represents about 10,000 good-paying jobs every business day that we export,&8221; Gutknecht said.

He added that he did not believe fuel needed more subsidies and proposed a 10 percent ethanol requirement in all gasoline by 2010.

Like Hugoson did in April, Gutknecht referred to Brazil’s success at becoming energy-independent, and he expressed hope for the ethanol, biodiesel and wind power industries.

Exol and SoyMor Biodiesel and Agra-Resources Cooperative were held up as positive examples of rural development in Freeborn County, along with Trails Travel Center. All three businesses received startup loans from USDA Rural Development through Freeborn-Mower Cooperative Services.

The business incubator revolving loan fund that helped Pro Manufacturing and Plaza Landscaping get started was also formed using a grant from the USDA.

City Manager Victoria Simonsen noted some of the local achievements of USDA Rural Development, such as providing $360,000 to extend power to a local business that also helped provide city water and wastewater services to 20 residential units with failed sewage treatment systems.

Dale Pohlman of the Dairyland Power Cooperative spoke at the banquet, covering what Dairyland was working on in terms of renewable energy. Many of Dairyland’s sites were in Wisconsin, but there were a few in Iowa, too, like the Lake Mills landfill site that provides three to eight megawatts of power to the surrounding area using landfill gas.

&8220;Thanks, all the people in Minnesota for this project, because that’s where all your garbage goes: Iowa. We’ll get energy for a long time out of this one,&8221; Pohlman said.