Area sugar farmers see pledge as victory for industry

The Forum | 14 October 2004

Area sugar farmers see pledge as victory for industry

By Jeff Zent

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has pledged to abandon trade
policy that threatens the nation’s sugar industry, Rep. Collin Peterson said
Wednesday.

Kerry promises to scrap the controversial U.S.-Central American Free Trade
Agreement if elected president Nov. 2.

The Massachusetts senator also has pledged not to pursue other regional
trade accords that would give foreign sugar producers greater access to the
U.S. market.

“He is going to stand up for sugar,” Peterson said during a press conference
on the Linda Jones farm a few miles north of Moorhead.

Peterson, whose congressional district is the nation’s largest sugar
producer, held three press conferences Wednesday in the Red River Valley and
another near Willmar to announce Kerry’s pledge to the nation’s sugar
industry.

Kerry’s commitment will likely win votes in the Red River Valley where the
sugar industry supports about 33,000 direct and indirect jobs and generates
$2 billion in economic activity every year, Peterson said.

The region’s beet growers have been “conflicted between Kerry’s poor record
on sugar and the current experiences we’ve got with Bush,” said David
Kragnes, a sugar beet farmer near Felton, Minn.

In the Senate, Kerry has twice voted against the federal sugar program.

“Right now growers are just not happy,” Kragnes said. “A clear statement on
sugar from either candidate would sway just about all of them.”

Peterson said he’s not always been comfortable with Kerry’s position on
sugar, either.

It took weeks, he said, to get Kerry to make a meaningful commitment.

“They tried initially to take a softer position,” he said.

Peterson said that changed on Friday, when he received a letter from Kerry
that included the assurances sought by the sugar industry.

“I am comfortable standing here today and saying he’s going to be with us,”
Peterson said. “The president is not.”

Kerry has long been opposed to CAFTA because of concerns over labor
standards, environmental standards and sugar, said Bill Burton, a spokesman
for the Kerry campaign in Washington.

Kerry agrees that global trade in sugar should be negotiated only in the
World Trade Organization, Peterson said.

Only the WTO can sort out the world’s trade barriers, said Jeff Schweitzer,
spokesman for the Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar Co.

President Bush’s trade negotiators brokered CAFTA late last year. The
agreement would give six Central American countries greater access to the
U.S. sugar market.

If passed by Congress, CAFTA will allow the six trading partners duty free
market access for another 110,000 metric tons of sugar in the first year of
the agreement. For the next 15 years their access to the U.S. sugar market
would grow by another 2 percent.

But the biggest worry among sugar producers is that the Bush administration
will bargain away their industry in on-going trade talks with 21 other
countries, most of which produce sugar, Peterson said.

“It would be the beginning of the end for the sugar industry, not just in
the Red River Valley, but, in my opinion, the entire country,” Peterson
said.

During a recent stop in Fargo, U.S. Agriculture Under Secretary Bill Hawk
said Bush will not trade away the nation’s sugar industry.

In a trade agreement reached with Australia, U.S. trade officials refused
that country greater access to the U.S. sugar market, he said.

“We recognize this as being a very sensitive industry and our trade
negotiators understand that,” Hawk said.

The region’s sugar beet farmers aren’t sitting back and waiting on election
results.

Growers at American Crystal Sugar and Wahpeton-based Minn-Dak Farmers
Cooperative are in the midst of a harvest and a public relations campaign to
build opposition against CAFTA.

On Friday, beet growers will begin rolling out a series of billboard ads
critical of CAFTA and its potential impact on the region’s sugar industry,
Minn-Dak spokeswoman Susan Johnson said.

Three of the ads will line I-29 in North Dakota, but most, about a dozen,
will be concentrated in the Twin Cities area, she said.

Minnesota is considered a swing state in the Nov. 2 election.

Beet farmers plan to hold media events in St. Paul and Washington to bring
attention to their anti-CAFTA petition, which has garnered more than 25,000
signatures, Schweitzer said.

American Crystal and Minn-Dak also have joined other sugar beet and cane
producers from around the country to finance an ad campaign.

Neither of the local sugar processors would disclose how much they will
spend in hopes of defeating CAFTA.

“We’re basically drawing a line in the sand, said David Roche, Minn-Dak’s
president and CEO. “We think its important that we get our message out and
let the public know what CAFTA would do to the region.”

Fuente: The Forum