By Brady Averill

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced a bill Tuesday that would give farmers an incentive to produce prairie grass and other crops for the next generation of ethanol production.

Under her Farm-to-Fuel Investment Act, farmers would receive assistance for three years if they switch to producing what are known as cellulosic energy crops as opposed to carbohydrate-based crops like corn.

"Farmers are going to be a key part of our nation's ability to achieve energy independence," Klobuchar said. "These crops could revolutionize how we look at energy, just like ethanol and biodiesel have."

Two Democratic Senate committee chairmen from the Midwest -- Iowa's Tom Harkin on the Agriculture Committee and North Dakota's Kent Conrad on the Budget Committee -- are also authors of the bill. Klobuchar intends to reach out to other Agriculture Committee colleagues, including Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., to get more support. The bill has the backing of the National Farmers Union.

The concept of producing cellulosic ethanol appears to have support on both sides of the aisle, and the Bush administration has shown interest. Last month, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns asked Congress to consider providing $150 million in grants that focus on cellulosic ethanol production.

Klobuchar said she doesn't yet know how much the legislation will cost. Because she has Conrad's support, she said she believes money will be found in the budget.

"To achieve the kind of goals that our country has for its energy future and increasing the amount of renewable energy that we put into the grid, we've got to look at new ways of doing things. One of the most promising that we have is the addition of cellulosic ethanol into the production chain," said Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association. . .