Trade becomes ag’s big issue in 2004


While standing in the Denver sunshine awaiting a ride to the airport recently, a young man approached. He worked at the U.S. Commerce Department on World Trade Organization and global trade issues, he explained.

You’ve had a tough year, I offered. “You’re telling me,” he said.

On the horizon. We chatted briefly about what 2004 could bring his way: bitter WTO negotiations, more harsh words on U.S. ag policy from Brazil and China, the politics of a presidential election.     

“Ugh, politics,” he groaned as my ride appeared. “You know, there’s no more political department in government than the USTR,” the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. “Those people are tough.”     

They have to be tough, I thought as I made my way to Denver’s sprawling jet ranch because, as the chief advocates of President Bush’s free trade policies, USTR is ordering the boats that likely will carry more American jobs overseas.     

Imports. Just as important, those boats won’t arrive here empty. In fact, in 2003 the U.S. imported $1 million more goods and services every minute than it exported.

At that rate, the U.S. trade deficit should reach Mars years before another American reaches the moon.     

Trade is swiftly becoming the No. 1 election issue for U.S. farmers and ranchers in 2004.

Agriculture cooked November’s half-a-loaf Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Miami and September’s no-loaf WTO Ministerial in Cancun.

Small victory. Even the Bush administration’s one tiny trade victory last year, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, is beginning to light up American farmers like a Toby Keith concert.     

Indeed, CAFTA – between the U.S. and those four powerhouses of global trade: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua – and its small concession to import more Central American sugar into the U.S. hit American farmers like a thunderbolt.

The camel’s nose, they cried, is in the tent. And the American Farm Bureau Federation, free trade proponents since before camels were domesticated, saw it.

At the group’s January convention in sandy Honolulu, AFBF delegates voted 204-202 that future U.S. trade policy must “prevent economic damage to import-sensitive commodities and the circumvention of domestic trade policy and tariffs schedules.”     

Egads, screamed an editorial in the Jan. 20 Wall Street Journal, the AFBF has been “hijacked” by “French farmers.”     

Their view. Not quite. But AFBF was gut-checked by North Dakota delegates who carried the go-slow trade resolution to Honolulu.

They view CAFTA as the pattern for future trade deals that slowly but surely will grind up beet growers and their state’s $2 billion-a-year sugar industry.     

More broadly, though, the split-down-the-middle vote reflects the deep concerns American cotton, beef, tobacco, lamb, peanuts and dairy producers – all now protected by solid import tariff quotas – are beginning to have with the Bush Administration’s free trade policies.     

Half are like clucking hens following the crowing rooster. The other half, however, clearly see their livelihoods on the free trade chopping block.

Understandably, they’re now have second thoughts about sticking their necks out like a trusting chicken ticketed for the soup pot.

Guest worker program. In early January the Bush administration turned up the heat on the pot when it announced a “guest worker” program that, according to some estimates, could bring 8 to 12 million now-illegal workers into the American workforce.     

As “compassionate” as the blatantly political program would seem, its central affect will be just the opposite. That is especially true in American rural communities where well-paying jobs – let alone new jobs – are harder to find than Canadian cattle.     

How? View the Bush guest worker program in simple economic terms. When the supply of labor exceeds the demand for labor, which direction do wages go?     

They don’t go up. Not in Chicago hotels. Not in Los Angeles garment factories. Not in North Dakota sugar beet plants and not in Iowa meat packing fortresses.     

Slap in the face. Indeed, if the White House’s trade and immigration policies are placed hand-in-glove, farmers and rural America better prepare themselves for a very hard slap in the face and a very cold dose of global reality.     

Or, as my Denver pal might say, ugh.

(The author is a freelance ag journalist who lives in Delavan, Ill. He can be reached via e-mail at:

© 2004 ag comm

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children.