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Minnesota Farm Bureau tackles food vs. fuel issue

Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation President Kevin Paap lays out issues facing farmers from implementing the new farm bill to the continuing food versus fuel debate during his annual address to Minnesota Farm Bureau members at their annual meeting Saturday in Brooklyn Park, Minn. staff photo by Brad Swenson

BROOKLYN PARK, Minn. -- Minnesota farmers and ranchers face challenges but also opportunities, says the head of the state's largest farm organization.

One of the largest challenges is debunking the charge that diverting corn to ethanol production has raised food costs.

"We cannot afford to have agriculture divided as we face our upcoming challenges -- we cannot have agriculture fighting agriculture," Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation President Kevin Paap said during his annual address here Saturday as part of the Minnesota Farm Bureau's two-day annual meeting.

"Farm Bureau has and will continue to promote homegrown renewable fuels as a way to add value to our commodities, add value to our communities, to improve our air quality and to lessen our dependence on foreign oil," said Paap, a Blue Earth County farmer who has been MFB president since 2005.

Minnesota Farm Bureau is a general farm organization with more than 27,000 members statewide in 78 county Farm Bureau units, including Beltrami County.

"We have seen renewable fuels become the scapegoat for a whole variety of problems," he said.

Opponents of corn-based ethanol maintain that diverting corn to renewable fuels production has limited supply and thus increased costs of consumer food and animal feed. They seek an end of government subsidies to ethanol production, or even curtail its production. Others maintain that it costs more in energy to produce ethanol than is gained in the gas.

"The facts are clear," Paap told about 350 Farm Bureau members at a Saturday lunch. "The higher commodity prices due to increased renewable fuel production have some impact on some food prices. But remember for every dollar spent on food, the farm value is around 19 cents. Let's not forget the cost of food after it leaves our farms and ranches for labor, packaging, transportation, advertising and of course -- profits."

Paap said homegrown renewable fuels doesn't raise fuel prices but rather lowers fuel prices. "They reduce our need to import expensive petroleum from unstable parts of the world, from countries that do not like us," he said. "Plus, biofuels help us reduce our carbon footprint."

Paap said Minnesota Farm Bureau "believes that we can have food and fuel. If I had to pick one issue that keeps me up at night, it would be the food vs. fuel, feed vs. fuel issue."

He called for Farm Bureau members to advocate, working together, to promote renewable fuels as a clean and good use of agricultural products which now is corn, but could soon be switch grass and other cellulostic materials.

"We are an advocate for all of agriculture," said Paap, whose speech kicked off Minnesota Farm Bureau's 90th anniversary year. "Farm Bureau must take the lead and ensure ag groups work together through this food and fuel issue."

Paap said farmers also face challenges in making sure the 2008 five-year federal farm bill is properly implemented, that Farm Bureau is part of the solution to climate change, that clean car standards that protect both the environment and agriculture, and that farming rights aren't derailed by animal rights activists.

"Our work is not done," Paap said of the new farm bill. "The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 is law, but we have a lot of rulemaking and implementing ahead of us."

He lauded the efforts of U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District, who steered the farm bill through Congress as chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee.

"MFBF sincerely thanks Chairman Peterson for his outstanding leadership on this legislation," Paap said, also citing Sens. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., and Reps. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8thDisrict, Tim Walz, DFL-1st District, John Kline, R-2nd District, Keith Ellison, DFL-5th District, and Betty McCollum, DFL-4th District.

Farm Bureau members will need to defend their livestock practices, Paap said, in light of efforts such as by Hu-mane Society of the United States to dictate animal welfare issues. California voters this month by a 63 percent margin approved Proposition 2, the nation's most stringent restrictions on how farmers raise their livestock.

Farmers and ranchers understand "that we have always provided consumers with the safest, most abundant and lowest cost food in the world," Paap said. "I believe everyone I in this room understands that livestock producers put the health and well-being of their animals first and that is why they continually work together with veterinarians, agricultural engineers and animal well-being experts to develop science-based guidelines and audits."

California now joins Florida and Arizona with Colorado also proposing gestation stall bans.

"We all have to do a better job of making a connection with consumers about who we are and how we raise the food they eat," Paap said. "We must strengthen the link between farm families and urban residents to let them know where their food comes from and they need to know it was cared for."

Farm Bureau also opposes California's effort to restrict vehicle emissions stronger than any national proposal, a plan introduced into the Minnesota Legislature. Adopting California standards could negatively affect Minnesota's E-85 infrastructure.

"Minnesota's opposition to last year's clean car legislation does not mean Minnesota farmers are against clean air," Paap said. "Farmers have a vital stake and are committed to respecting and protecting our natural resources, both for ourselves and for future generations while remaining a leader in providing food, fiber and fuel."

Work to eradicate bovine tuberculosis from northwest Minnesota beef cattle was a Farm Bureau legislative prior-ity last year, and will continue to be a priority, Paap said.

"It continues to have a severe impact on our state's cattle producers," he said.

It's important that Farm Bureau "be an advocate for agriculture, driven by the beliefs and polices of our mem-bers," Paap said. "We all have to work together to be successful."