Sugar beet farmers frame presidential election with troublesome trade deal

AP

Sugar beet farmers frame presidential election with troublesome trade deal

DAVE KOLPACK, Associated Press Writer

25 September 2004

Sugar beet farmers in a rural Minnesota district that turned out solidly for President Bush in 2000 are having second thoughts about his re-election now that the administration is supporting a trade agreement they see as a threat.

"That is overshadowing everything," said Diane Ista, a community activist and longtime Democrat who grows sugar beets on a farm in Norman County.

That could make the difference in the state Bush lost to Democratic candidate Al Gore by fewer than 6,000 votes. Winning Minnesota’s 10 electoral votes this year depends on turning out the sort of support Bush received in the 7th District, which the Republican carried by nearly 15 percentage points.

Kevin Nelson, a wheat and sugar beet farmer near Glyndon, donated money to the first Bush campaign. Now, the president has "lost all my support," Nelson said.

"I was unsure of him back then, too," Nelson said. "He has never been very strong on agriculture in general."

Diane and Richard Ista are among those worried that their farm could be compromised by the Central American Free Trade Agreement. CAFTA would reduce trade tariffs between the United States and several Central American countries. In the Red River Valley, where more than one-fifth of the nation’s sugar is produced, such a deal raises concern — and ire.

"This is a very important issue," said Lynn Johnson, a political independent who voted for Bush in 2000. "We’re talking about something that could cost you part of your livelihood."

Most beet farmers are leaning toward Democratic candidate John Kerry, said Victor Krabbenhoft, chairman of the board of directors of Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative and a Bush supporter in 2000. Kerry could guarantee votes by making it clear he would take sugar out of the trade agreement, Krabbenhoft said.

"That could get him support in the 7th District like you wouldn’t believe," Krabbenhoft said.

Kerry has said he favors renegotiating CAFTA, a position Diane Ista interprets to mean that he will fight against the agreement. At the least, Krabbenhoft said, that is more than beet farmers are hearing from Bush.

"It may not be completely the way we feel," Ista said, "but the point is that Kerry is willing to learn."

Other beet farmers remain behind Bush in spite of their concerns about CAFTA. Wolverton farmer Jay Nord, who gave money to Bush in 2000 and again this year, warns that farmers should be careful about voting on one issue.

"There are other important issues, like the tax cuts and homeland security," Nord said. "CAFTA could be trouble for us, but work is being done to fix that."

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