More clout for corn in Washington

  • Article by: ROB HOTAKAINEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 4, 2007 - 7:59 PM

Midwestern farmers expect to benefit from a shift in power in the new Congress.

WASHINGTON - Keith Tordsen, 58, has collected nearly $1.4 million in federal subsidies for his corn and soybeans since 1995, but he hardly considers himself a rich man.

"It's not like we're sitting around in Cadillacs," said Tordsen, who farms 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans near Round Lake, in the corner of southwestern Minnesota.

Defending agricultural subsidies is an increasingly tough sell in Washington, but Tordsen and other Midwestern farmers expect to benefit from a shift in political power in the new Congress.

After years of dominating the farm committees in Congress, Southern lawmakers find themselves taking a back seat to those from the Midwest, and corn and soybean farmers are eager to cash in.

They're optimistic because two veteran Democrats -- Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa -- are heading the agriculture committees and will take the lead in crafting a new farm bill this year.

"For those of us out here, the earth truly did shift in terms of agriculture," said freshman Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., a member of the House Agriculture Committee. "It's huge" to have Peterson and Harkin in leading roles, he said: "I don't have anything against rice and cotton -- it's just that I'm a little partial to corn and soybeans."

More than anything, Tordsen said, farmers are looking for stability from Washington, adding that corn prices might be high now but that there's no guarantee they won't fall. Peterson isn't his congressman, but Tordsen appreciates his new power: "I'm glad a Minnesotan's there instead of somebody from the South."

Peterson and Harkin are big advocates of traditional subsidy programs for farm crops and represent two of the top-ranked states for farm subsidies. They both want their states to capitalize on the exploding interest in the expansion of corn-based ethanol.

They've got an unusual ally in the White House: As part of his plan to reduce oil consumption by 20 percent, President Bush has jumped on the ethanol bandwagon. After Bush announced his plan in his State of the Union speech, Harkin marveled at the political alignment.

"It appears I stand arm in arm with the president on the need to wean America off its dependence on foreign oil. ... It's amazing to hear a Texas oilman say that America's energy future lies in the corn and soybean fields of Iowa and the Midwest, not the oil fields of the Middle East," he said.

Much is at stake for Iowa and Minnesota, states that ranked second and fifth, respectively, in total subsidies from 1995 to 2005, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington group that tracks farm subsidies. Iowa received nearly $14.8 billion in subsidies, trailing only Texas, while Minnesota received $9.5 billion, following Illinois and Nebraska, which ranked third and fourth, respectively. Between them, Iowa and Minnesota accounted for nearly 15 percent of all farm subsidies during the 10-year period.

Minnesotans routinely lobby for spots on the ag committees. This year, four of the state's 10 representatives are serving on farm committees. They include Peterson and Walz and both of Minnesota's senators, newly elected Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Republican Norm Coleman.

Coleman said Harkin joked about Minnesota's growing influence when the two senators ran into each other recently. "Boy, you Minnesotans are loading up," he quoted the new chairman as saying. And Coleman said it's clear the shift in power will help the state.

"There are a lot of things that I lament about the results of the last election, but having Collin Peterson as chairman of the Ag Committee is a good thing for Minnesota," he said. "It's not one of the things I lament."

Walz, who defeated Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht, said Minnesota now has the opportunity "to put a huge stamp" on the next farm bill. He said geography makes a big difference on the committee and that Congress should do better in supporting renewable fuels.

"We've seen very, very good programs for cotton and rice, and we kind of had to fend for ourselves on some of the renewables, a few bones here, a few bones there," Walz said. "That's going to change."

For his part, Peterson downplayed the importance of geography.

"I don't know if it's such a big deal from a regional perspective, because in the end we have to come up with a bill that's going to get support from all parts of the country," he said. "More important than the fact that we're in the Midwest ... is that Tom (Harkin) and I represent Ground Central in ethanol, and we know a lot about it, and this is the most important thing we're going to do in this bill."

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