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United States

Bill seeds clean energy crops -- US farmers harvest the wind

A federal farm bill allocating more than $400 million for the development of clean energy cash crops on family farms and ranches in the United States provides "huge opportunities" for farmers looking to harvest the wind, says a Midwest environmental advocate. "This is a win-win-win for farmers, rural economic development and the environment," says Howard Learner of Chicago's Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC). "The clean energy provisions in the federal farm bill are a big victory for all of us. We need to find a way to take the potential of the funding that's there and translate that into on the ground projects and deals that move it forward."

For wind, the heart of the bill's clean energy provisions is a five year, $115 million program that provides low interest loans, loan guarantees and grants to farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses to buy and install renewable energy systems and invest in energy efficiency. A second program, for which a budget has yet to be determined, will help fund energy audits and renewable energy assessments. The remainder of the bill's $405 million in energy funding goes to biomass research and to programs designed to increase the production and use of ethanol and biodiesel fuels.

In addition to its clean energy programs, the farm bill expands a number of US Department of Agriculture's rural development loan and grant programs, which have historically supported ethanol production, to include renewable energy projects. This, says Learner, gives wind power development access to hundreds of millions of dollars more in potential funding.

For example, the bill, signed into law by President George Bush in mid-May, expands the definition of "value-added agricultural product" to include farm and ranch based renewable energy, making producers eligible for grants to assist with feasibility studies, business plans, and marketing strategies. Renewable power projects are also eligible for loans of up to $25 million.

"The legislation provides new value added opportunities for farmers and ranchers to form co-operatives and participate as equity partners in new businesses to sell renewable energy sources," Learner says.

New income

The Iowa Renewable Energy Association's Ed Woolsey praised the bill's clean energy provisions, saying they will help farmers create important new income streams. "Energy is an entirely new market for agriculture and one that has virtually unlimited demand," he says. "Farmers have new financial opportunities to develop wind power resources on their land and diversify their agricultural operations in an environmentally friendly way."

Now that renewable energy development is enshrined in US farm legislation, says Learner, the next step is to expand the programs to bring even more "real money" to the effort. He points to the farm bill's conservation programs, which reward farmers for protecting water quality, wildlife habitat and wetlands. The conservation measures were introduced in the 1985 farm bill and this year received a record $17.1 billion.

"We have an opportunity, if we get it right, having done the heavy lifting getting a new set of provisions in the farm bill, to build on that for the future and really ramp that program up enormously," Learner says. The Department of Agriculture is expected have the rules in place for implementing the new law this summer, he adds.

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