With all the talk these days about strengthening the economy and creating jobs, Congress must not overlook the agriculture sector. My top priorities continue to be increasing opportunities for family farmers and ranchers to make a livable income off their lands and developing economic opportunities though rural development and renewable energy to help small towns and communities thrive.
The 2008 Farm Bill certainly strengthened these opportunities by ensuring the continuation of relatively strong commodity prices coupled with a strong and effective "safety net."
The last Farm Bill also continued the Rural Microenterprise Development Assistance Program to help small entrepreneurs in rural areas gain access to much needed credit that is often difficult to get.
The last Farm Bill's Energy Title is working to the production of renewable energy from farms and ranches.
Most recently, USDA released $1.8 million from the Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels and the Rural Energy for America Program, which is helping ethanol plants modernize, allow local landowners to develop wind projects, and allow producers to harness the energy capabilities from animal waste.
These efforts have been bolstered by the EPA's recent announcement that E15 is safe for automobiles model year 2001 and newer, which will expand consumer choice for homegrown fuels at the pump.
While continued investment at our research institutes, such as the Lincoln-based ARS center where USDA is focused on establishing one of five Regional Biofuels Feedstocks Research and Demonstration Centers that will focus on water resource management and bioenergy feedstock production will help our producers meet the worlds growing demands for food, feed, and fuel.
We must work to continue these positive gains made for agriculture and rural America and protect it against a tough budgetary climate and onerous regulation. Most notably we must continue to make every effort to ensure that the EPA does not handcuff American farmers.
I have grown increasingly concerned with the EPA's efforts to regulate the dust on our county roads and the application of pesticide and fertilizer to grow our crops. I'll continue to work to make sure these unreasonable rules do not come to fruition.
I'm also committed to expanding economic opportunities for farmers through agricultural trade. Free trade agreements and fair trade practices are important to Nebraska. That's why I push them in the Senate and why I pushed them as governor when Nebraska's international exports more than doubled from $868 million to $2 billion-plus.
Hopefully, Congress and the Administration will act quickly on three pending bilateral free trade agreements to with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.
There are a number of challenges facing American agriculture as we enter this new decade, but, speaking as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I am confident that with careful deliberation and thoughtful debate we can craft agriculture policy that is good for improving the economy and creating jobs in both rural America and the nation as a whole.