By Brad Swenson
BROOKLYN PARK, Minn. -- Any new economic stimulus must include rural America, both of Minnesota's U.S. senators told a farm group here Friday night.
Sens. Norm Coleman, a Republican, and Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, said investments need to be made in rural communities that will continue to suffer decline otherwise.
"I'm hopeful that as we look at economic stimulus, as a way to promote jobs," says Klobuchar," that we have programs that will last long after the rebate checks were cashed. And that's getting jobs into our rural areas that need to prepare themselves for this next century's economy, taking roads, bridges and rails up to speed as we carry our goods to market."
Rural Minnesota holds great promise in renewable fuels, said Coleman, who said :shame on us" if current low gas prices put off efforts to develop renewable fuels.
"There was a time when some folks were saying that we've got to change some things in terms of our resolve and our commitment regarding renewables," Coleman said. "The renewable revolution has been an important part of the vitality and strength of rural communities, but it's also one of the key pieces in terms of America's opportunity to end dependence on foreign oil. Hopefully we've learned some lessons that when we take a long-term perspective, there's a huge opportunity with renewables."
Both Coleman and Klobuchar spoke Friday night to members of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation's annual conference at Brooklyn Park. Both are also members of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee.
And Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap presented both senators with MFB's Friend of Farm Bureau Award for 2008.
Paap called Coleman "a good friend of Farm Bureau, a good friend of agriculture," and thanked Klobuchar of fulfilling her first wish to request a seat on the Ag Committee.
The freshman legislator said work isn't done on the new farm bill as Congress monitors how the administration implements it. But that should be smooth, she said, as a Democrat Barack Obama becomes president.
"If it hadn't gotten passed this last year, can you image what we would have been up against with the economy if we had waited?" Klobuchar said, adding it took two veto overrides to put the farm bill in law.
She also credited U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District, chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee.
"He has been there every step of the way," she said, adding that Peterson helped push action the slower Senate.
The new farm bill provides a safety net for farmers, has permanent disaster aid and helps keep milk supports in place, Klobuchar said.
As the new Congress meets, there is a fear that the economic crisis may spread to the agricultural sector, which in recent years has seen success, she said.
"We're going to have to makes sure that supply and demand ... that some of the things we've been seeing on Wall Street don't hurt our farm economy," Klobuchar said, citing Peterson's call for hearings on derivatives.
But there are also opportunities, she said. "The new president has pledged to work very hard on home-grown energy."
Wind power has great potential in Minnesota, and ethanol has boomed, with Minnesota having about 400 of the nation's E-85 gas pumps.
"Nineteen ethanol plants generate about $5 billion to the state's economy, supporting 18,000 jobs," she said.
"These are some challenging times," said Republican Coleman, who is in the middle of a recount to keep his job, a challenging time for him.
"Some of the bulwarks against the economic challenges we face has been the vitality of our rural communities," he said. "The core of that work ethic began in the homes of folks here and your parents and grandparents. That makes Minnesota very, very special."
Congress passed a good farm bill, he said, with Coleman voting twice to override President George W. Bush's vetoes of it. That comes with a bipartisan effort, he said, noting Klobuchar in the audience.
"It's a paper partisan divide that makes it so difficult and impossible for Washington to get anything done," he said. "It raises the level of frustration for Minnesotans." But he called the Senate Ag Committee an "island of bipartisan cooperation."
Today is the most challenging economic times Coleman's seen in his life, he said. But part of meeting that challenge will be in keeping commitments to renewable fuels, biofuels, ethanol and research.
Coleman also said Congress must monitor how the new farm bill is implemented.
He thanked the Farm Bureau, saying their efforts "have helped make me a better public servant and made me better able to respond to the needs and challenges of the folks who supply the safest, most affordable food supply in the world, who supply the backbone, the fiber of what it means to be an American."