Collin Peterson’s War? biofuels and wildlife

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From left: Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., share some humor with Dave Nomsen vice president of government affairs for Pheasants Forever, as he sets groundrules for a Farm Bill Fourum in St. Paul, Minn., on Jan. 19. At right is Acting Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner. At far left is Bob St. Pierre,  PF’s director of marketing and public relations.

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The Pheasants Forever event in St. Paul this past weekend marked 25 years for the organization. You can sense the passion for the goal of expanding habitat, even as their leaders offer table prayers, describing their conservation work as part of God’s will.

If there were any question about the influence of this group on the nation’s agricultural policy, farmers might be startled to know that this event drew three of the biggies on the national scene — the acting Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner, and the chairmen of the U.S. House and Senate agriculture committees. In some 30 years of agricultural news reporting, I’ve rarely seen the collection of this kind of ag policy brass in one location. Sens. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., were also there, as well as a slew of USDA offials and operatives.

Conner and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. Collin Peterson enjoy a love fest among the pheasant enthusiasts.

Conner is introduced as as a long-time friend of the organization. He helped write policies that led to the historic Conservation Reserve Program in 1985, while serving as an agricultural policy aide to Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. And then there’s Harkin, who is a big pusher for conservation policies, especially the Conservation Security Program in the 2002 farm bill, and Peterson — a big pheasant hunter himself, and a champion wildlife habitat, and expansion of the CRP.

Trouble is, the same set of people have been at the forefront of pushing for farmer-friendly biofuels goals. These policies haveled to a huge shortfall in U.S. acres for the purpose. The resulting historic run-up in farm commodity crops is a major reason for a huge decline in CRP acres, as landowners allow their contracts to expire.

Experts seem to be saying the U.S. is about 15 millon acres short of cropland for the next few years, as agriculture attempts to catch up to the renewable fuels goals that have been placed into law in recent energy legislation. Don’t expect the high-priced grain trend to change until someone in Congress either backs off on renewable standards, or farmers figure out a way to add the acres and production.

Of course the way farmers area adding to the acres has been the breaking up of CRP land, a trend that is alarming to the pheasant lovers.

Conner and Harkin quickly point to the hope of cellulose-based ethanol as the cure for the biofuels shortfall, but you can see Peterson is beginning to get nervous about the details. There are "snake-oil salesmen" out there, he says, noting that the technology of raising, gathering and processing the crop of cellulose crops are not solved. Harkin says he expects plants to be popping up like "mushrooms" in five years — for sure — while Peterson says the industry might develop in the next five to ten years. The renewable/ethanol goals are only compatible with wildlife goals if all of these details work out.

Meanwhile, God (or at least some heavy hitters in ag policy) seem to be on both sides.

It all kind of reminds me of the recent movie, "Charlie Wilson’s War," in which the congressman Wilson (Tom Hanks) links with Dallas socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) to raise funds so the Afghanistans expel the Soviet army in the early 1980s. She claims her success is attributable to the fact that God is on her side. "Sooner or later, God’s going to be on both sides," Charlie responds.

If you want to read details about what these fellows think, I’ll be writing more about this remarkable event in the Jan. 28 issue of Agweek magazine.

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