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Klobuchar hopes Obama will name strong Ag Secretary

BROOKLYN PARK, Minn. -- The biggest mystery in the agricultural community is who will become the new U.S. secretary of agriculture.

It most likely won't be U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District, chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee.

"He would be great, though, we'd love to have Collin in there," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., said this weekend during an interview at the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation's two-day annual meeting.

Peterson, in his first term as Ag Committee chairman, has publicly stated that he can do more to direct agricultural policy as committee chairman in the House than in implementing policy in the Obama administration.

Yet, the Detroit Lakes native is constantly mentioned as in the top circle of candidates being considered by Democrat President-elect Barack Obama.

"We've heard about the former governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack, Tom Bius' (National Farmers Union president) name has been up there, it could be anyone," Klobuchar said. "I don't think anyone would have expected that Hillary Clinton would be secretary of state."

Whoever Obama nominates, "I just hope it's someone who understands the value of agriculture, that it is not an easy way to do business," Klobuchar said. "We have to make sure that we don't have the problem that we have with oil, that we're dependent on foreign oil. We don't want to become dependent on foreign food. We want to keep our agriculture sector strong."

That's especially true for northern Minnesota, she said, "as having the forestry piece of agriculture is important as well. We've seen, because of the housing slump, very difficult times for our forestry industry, and at the same time the weak dollar has helped us slightly against Canada with our mills."

The current farm bill does do some things about the price of timber on national forests,, the Democrat said. "We're going to keep working on those issues, just make sure that we do everything as well as possible to make the timber industry strong. It's a big part of northern Minnesota's economy."

Klobuchar, a member of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee, was honored with fellow committee member, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., with Minnesota Farm Bureau's "Friend of Farm Bureau" awards.

"Being on the Agriculture Committee isn't always the easiest thing because it's a challenge - you have to convince other members of the importance of rural America," Klobuchar said. "We were able to do it this year."

If considering a farm bill had been delayed until after the election -- as once was an idea -- or if consensus hadn't been found on a farm bill, "it would have been almost impossible to pass the farm bill this year because of the economy and everything that's happened," she said.

President-elect Barack Obama's familiarity is Chicago, but that won't close him to understanding rural America, Klobuchar believes.

"Here's the good thing -- he's from Illinois -- one of his best friends is Dick Durbin," she said of the other senator from Illinois who is assistant majority leader. Obama "had a lot of early support from a lot of farm senators, including Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan (both North Dakota) and me, Ben Nelson (Florida), so I think that will be helpful.

"We haven't had anyone in the presidency from the Midwest for quite a while," Klobuchar said. In fact, the last Midwestern president was Gerald Ford, who hailed from Michigan.

Next year, the early focus will be on implementing the new farm bill, she said. "First of all, we're going to be making sure the farm bill gets implemented in the right way. There's going to be some funding issues with the disaster assistance, making sure that Country of Origin Labeling gets implemented. We're going to have some issue with the 10-acre rule, and we're going to have a new agriculture secretary."

The Bush administration has wanted to implement crop subsidies only to farmers who own 10 acres or more in one piece, while Congress has temporarily waived that rule interpretation by allowing farmers who own10 acres in aggregate to qualify.

The new farm bill does have permanent disaster funding, which Klobuchar said has already been tapped for flooding in southern Minnesota and Iowa this summer.

Issues for rural Minnesota include an economic stimulus package, she said.

"The first thing right now with the economy the way it is will be to pump some economic stimulus money into the economy, particularly with infrastructure funding," Klobuchar said. "That's very important in rural Minnesota. This isn't just about a bridge falling down in the middle of Minneapolis; it's also about our roads in Redwood Falls, freight up in International Falls -- there's just going to be a lot of infrastructure funding issues that will be important."

Rural health care will also loom large, she said. "We know we're going to launch into some new major health care proposals that I think will make health care more affordable. But we want to make sure that rural America has a place at the table in that health care debate."

The third big issue for rural Minnesota is energy, she said.

"It's not just going to be about wind and solar and geothermal, it's also going to be about biofuels, biomass, residue from logging -- we want to make sure that the parts of our state economy that can contribute to homegrown energy are part of any proposal that comes out of Washington," Klobuchar said.

Also important to rural health care is a critical access hospital at Walker. Klobuchar said she has been working with Coleman on that issue and is prepared to continue with it if Coleman doesn't win his recount with Democrat Al Franken.

"Whoever's the senator out of this recount -- we just want to make sure we count every vote -- I'll be working with him on the Walker hospital issue," she said.