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Kinzinger, committee reaching out to farmers

Big ag issues outlined in first meeting of panel

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 11:19 a.m. CDT

U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, says it’s important for legislators to know what they don’t know.

That was one reason, he says, that he has been working for several months to put together an Agriculture Advisory Committee in his 16th Congressional District, which includes Lee, Ogle and Bureau counties.

“I have family that has been involved in farming, but I’m not a farmer,” he said. “I wanted to bring different kinds of farmers together, so they can tell me what’s on their mind and educate me.”

The committee will serve as a forum for Kinzinger to hear directly from his ag constituents about how policy issues are affecting them. Producers from all 14 counties in the 16th District have been chosen to serve as representatives for their neighboring farmers. It is hoped there soon will be 20 to 25 farmers on the panel.

The committee met for the first time Dec. 19 in Ottawa.

The launch of the committee would appear to be well-timed, considering the importance of many ag-related issues up for debate in Washington.

Farmers still are waiting for a new farm bill, and optimism is building that one will soon emerge.

Earlier this week, leaders of the Senate and House agriculture committees said they were close to announcing a multi-year bill. A few loose ends remain on a proposal to cut $9 billion in food stamp funding, and some disagreement lingers about dairy price supports and a catfish inspection agency that has yet to evaluate a fish.

The deal was shaping up nicely before Congress left for the holidays, said Adam Nielsen, Illinois Farm Bureau’s director of national legislation and policy development.

“Congress left Washington with the framework for a deal,” Nielsen said. “They were just very quiet about it.”

Nielsen said he is optimistic that the committees will have everything hashed out in the next week. Kinzinger also said the farm bill should soon be a done deal.

Donna Jeschke, a Grundy County farmer and a past president of the Illinois Corn Marketing Board, was at the first advisory committee in Ottawa. She said there was solid agreement among committee members about the farm bill. As long as the uncertainty is gone, they can work within the rules – whatever they are.

“We agree that direct payments can go away,” Jeschke said. “We feel that having a strong crop insurance in place is the key to a good risk-management program. Extension of the current farm bill is not in anyone’s best interest.”

Emily Pratt also attended the first advisory committee meeting as Lee County’s representative. In addition to being part of a farm family all her life, she is a crop insurance agent for 1st Farm Credit Services.

Pratt said Kinzinger’s office reached out to the county farm bureaus for help in finding committee members. She then worked with Lee County Farm Bureau Manager Danelle Burrs and Nielsen to prepare for the meeting.

“I’ve never served on a committee like this before, so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect,” Pratt said. “It was a very open discussion right away. We were updated on the latest issues in Washington, and then he wanted to know how they were affecting us.”

‘A critical time for ethanol industry’

Now that the farm bill could soon be in place, renewable fuels standards and the U.S. EPA now seemed to be taking its place as the hot-button legislative topic among producers.

In November, the EPA proposed to lower the amount of renewable fuels in gasoline. Included would be ethanol, biodiesel, and cellulosic (plant-based) biofuels. The proposed rule has sent fear into grain and energy markets, and threatened the stability of investments with biofuels producers.

This is the first time renewable fuel standards have been reduced since Congress first set it at 18.2 billion gallons in 2007. The latest EPA proposal would require that refiners use only 15.2 billion gallons. Of that total, about 13 billion gallons would come from ethanol. EPA says its decision is based on lower American gasoline consumption than what was projected when the standards were set in 2007. That trend is largely attributed to a challenging economy and more fuel-efficient vehicles.

EPA is taking public comments on the proposed rule until Jan. 28, looking to finalize it in February. Nielsen said Farm Bureau has been hard at work to get ethanol plants involved in the process. A petition drive in support of ethanol also is in full swing.

“This is a critical time for the ethanol industry,” Nielsen said. “It’s make-or-break time for the future of renewable fuels. It would be a big setback if EPA follows through on the proposed adjustment in blends. But we’ve learned that the battle is never over on the renewable fuels front.”

Kinzinger will get a good look at the renewable fuels issue from his seat on the Energy and Commerce committee.

“Ethanol is very important to the family farms in this district,” Kinzinger said. “Ag groups are pushing for E15, but the EPA doesn’t want that yet.”

Talk about the EPA is nothing new for most farm families, Pratt said. She wasn’t surprised that so much time was devoted to it during the first committee meeting.

“My dad is in the beef industry, and I heard a lot about environmental regulations at home,” Pratt said. “People talked about this as being another example of overreach by the EPA. It just seems like they can do things that affect our businesses and livelihood with no one looking over them.”

‘The Mississippi River is so important ...’

Another important issue discussed in Ottawa was needed improvements to the locks and dams so vital in shipping commodities. Kinzinger and 17th District Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, have championed efforts to speed up waterway projects.

“This is a long time coming,” Pratt said. “The Mississippi River is so important to us here in the Midwest.”

The infrastructure is so bad that barge operators have asked Washington for an increased tax on their diesel fuel.

“The barge industry is willing to put in some of their resources as long as the government makes a firm commitment to improve the waterways system,” Jestche said. “This becomes even more important with what’s going on with ethanol. We could be exporting more whole kernels if the fuel standards change.”

With the advisory committee in its infancy, Pratt says her goals are likely to change as the group’s mission evolves. She does have some goals in mind as she works to get input from local farmers to the congressman.

“I want to get to know the other committee members, because some of them are very experienced in ag policy issues,” she said. “Personally, I hope to learn more about how the issues affect all of Illinois, not just those in my backyard.”

Plans now call for the entire committee to meet face to face once a year, and members will organize local meetings and participate in teleconferences throughout the year.

Kinzinger believes the trust that farmers put in the Farm Bureau, agriculture’s largest lobbying group, could be why he doesn’t get more direct input on farm issues.

“The Illinois Farm Bureau does such a good job, I think farmers often feel they don’t have to engage in legislative issues,” Kinzinger said. “I hope this committee will help get more people directly involved.”

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