Maybe the U.S trade rep should check with U.S. farmers before promising their support of a free trade agreement with the Aussies. And maybe the last two years in Congress weren't a total loss for agriculture.

By Alan Guebert, November 22, 2002

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1. USTR boosts free trade agenda

Is U.S. Special Trade Representative Robert Zoellick ever home long enough from his “free ag trade” missions to take the pulse of American farmers on the topic?

If not, maybe he should schedule some serious face time with American farm groups during the upcoming holiday season because their once concrete backing of the White House’s global ag trade policies has begun to crack.

Australia is a case in point.

On Nov. 14, Zoellick attended a World Trade Organization meeting in Sydney Australia. The meeting, whose 24 other attendees represented countries that constitute 80 percent of the world’s ag trade, was to be “informal.” In other words, a private, nothing-on-the-record discussion on how to move WTO ag trade talks forward as a self-imposed March 2003 deadline speedily approaches.

Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile, however, raised the ante before the trade masters of the universe set foot in Sydney. Commenting on the Doha Round in general, Vaile said the Sydney meeting would be crucial because no WTO talks would move forward until there is “progress on agriculture.”

Taking his cue from Vaile, Zoellick immediately announced that he had notified the U.S. Congress of White House plans to start bilateral ag talks with the Aussies because American farmers “had ended their opposition to free trade negotiations between Australia and the U.S.”

That was news to most American farm groups; several took it badly.

First, Zoellick--either by design or by mistake--wildly overstated the farm groups’ tacit approval to talk trade with Australia. Many groups, led by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), had only endorsed “initiation” of the talks.

Most, however--including the AFBF--explained they had reserved their right to reject any final deal if it requires a U.S. ag policy overhaul. (Think big cuts in American ag subsidies.)

Others, like the packer-dominated National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the 300,000-member National Farmers Union, openly chided Zoellick for even talking trade with Australia. Both rightly fear that freer ag trade with Down Under farmers would flood U.S. markets with even more cheap beef, lamb, wool and sugar.

NCBA’s reaction was a shocker for Zoellick because it all but owns USDA. Many former NCBA-ers are now USDA officials. (They’re the ones carrying Secretary Veneman’s handbag and whispering in both her right and left ears.)

Washington pundits quickly saw the NCBA-Zoellick spat as further evidence USDA plays little to no part in formulating U.S. farm trade policy; it’s a White House show all the way.
Additionally, they claim, Zoellick’s quick appeasement of Australian free ag traders was the White House’s way of getting Aussie support for its Iraq policy.

The latter is likely true. More troublesome, however, is the former. If the White House continues to bypass USDA in pursuit of more bilateral trade negotiations outside the WTO, American farmers should prepare themselves for the day the White House proposes cuts to the 2002 Farm Bill, the main stumbling block in all U.S. ag trade talks.

2.) Lame duck congress limps home

The Second Session of the 107th Congress, including the two-week, post-election lame duck session, slipped into the history this week. It was a scene for the ages.

And for the aged: The U.S. Senate made special provisions to permit 99-year-old--he’ll be 100 on Dec. 2--South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond to gavel the session to an end. Thurmond now retires, his seat to be taken by Sen.-Elect Dole. (No, not that Dole; the other Dole, wife Elizabeth.)

The two-year session provided farmers with high and low moments.

The high point? The 2002 Farm Bill. Through deft parliamentary maneuvers, Congress boosted the amount of money available to farm programs in 2001, then grabbed the money by writing a New Farm® Bill one year early in 2002. Slick.

The low point? The 2002 Farm Bill. Working with a split personality--a Democratic Senate and a Republican House--the final bill excluded a competition title and any restrictions on packer-owned livestock. Silly.

Contrary to most perceptions, the 107th did not sit on it hands for two years.

Good, bad or indifferent, it did pass Fast Track Trade Authority. While most farmers believe Fast Track a necessary tool to enhance U.S. ag exports, it virtually cuts farmers and USDA out of the trade talk loop: No completed trade treaty can be amended under Fast Track.

Congress also dispensed of the inheritance tax--universally hated by farmers and land owners alike--when it passed a 10-year tax cut plan in early 2001. Although Internal Revenue Service figures show that fewer than 2,000 farmers pay inheritance taxes each year, Republicans made flag-waving, yeoman farmers the poster children to repeal the what they brilliantly labeled as the “death tax.”

Most Congressional watchers predict the new Republican-controlled 108th Congress quickly will make the cut permanent when it convenes next January.

In the waning days of the 107th, though, Congress failed to act on the $5.9 billion drought assistance bill that passed the Senate in September and it did not move the agreed-upon Energy Bill to final passage. The Energy Bill contains the much sought 5-billion-gallon ethanol mandate by 2012, effectively quintupling the alternative fuel’s use nationwide.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott noted both ideas will be considered in 2003. Consideration, it should be noted, is not enactment. If either or both is enacted, expect Lott to claim them as Republican victories.

In sum, the past session, despite all its partisan bickering, showed bipartisan support for major ag legislation--a new Farm Bill, a sweeping tax bill, Fast Track and a nearly-passed ethanol-boosting law.

3.) They said it . . .

Who said what? They said this.

-- David Wessel, columnist, The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 21: “One Republican who has been in and out of government over the past 20 years quips privately that Mr. Bush’s economic policy lacks only two things: a policy and someone to explain it.”

-- The American Farm Bureau Federation, Nov. 21: “In AFBF's annual informal survey of the price of basic items found on the Thanksgiving Day dinner table, the average cost of this year's feast for 10 is $34.56, a 48-cent drop from last year's survey average of $35.04. It marks only the second drop in average price since 1991.”

-- John Howard, Prime Minister, Australia, Nov. 14: “I can assure you that we are not going to in any way compromise or sell out the interests of Australian farmers in the pursuit of a free trade agreement with the United States ...”

-- Raymond Collit, Financial Times, London, Nov. 20: “Mr. Lula da Silva [newly-elected president of Brazil] and many other Brazilians have been skeptical of US intentions to reduce trade barriers and farm subsidies that stifle their exports. While favoring frank talks to boost trade, Aloizio Mercadante, a leading PT (ruling party) senator and economic adviser, criticized US trade policy. "The Americans always played tough and now they will face a government that will play as tough as they do," he said.

-- Benjamin Franklin, Editor, Patriot, Beer Drinker, Philadelphia: “Beer is proof that God loves us and want us to be happy.”

4.) Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is not until next Thursday, but I can tell you what will happen in our big, central Illinois house.

My parents will arrive on Wednesday afternoon carrying three precious cargoes: Mom’s famous dressing, her even more famous candied sweet potatoes and Paul, son of the lovely Catherine and me and a first year law student at St. Louis University.

(“Dad,” he will tell me, “it’s really stressful.” No doubt, I will I tell him; we call that feeling by its rightful name, though--adulthood.)
Later the youngest of my four brothers and his family will arrive. Christian is a VIG, very important guest; he will bring the beer. (See the above quote from Benjamin Franklin.)

Thursday will bring 9 am church, 11 am Bloody Marys or champagne or both, 1 pm dinner for the 36 who are invited and 3 pm naps or Euchre-playing before another round of eating, drinking and card-playing kicks off about 7 pm.

Friday will bring most everyone back--plus some of my fishing pals--for my father’s annual fish fry. The menu will be simple; crappie fillets, butter bread, pickles and beer. Hey, dinner, like life, ain’t complicated if you’re a fisherman.

Saturday will bring good-byes. Mom and Dad back to southern Illinois, Catherine’s family to other points in Illinois, Paul to St. Louis and first semester finals. (“It’s really going to be stressful,” he will say before leaving.)

But before Thursday’s feast begins, I will call all into the dining room to remind them of how blessed we were to enjoy the company of family friends who have passed away since we last gathered. I will give thanks to Heaven for delivering all the Gueberts and all the Watsons through illnesses and travel, trouble and travails.

And then I’ll ask God to shower special blessings on the good and wonderful people--you, and all farmers--who provided the meal that will be central to our weekend of fellowship, love and laughter.

Happy Thanksgiving. And remember what Franklin said.


  • November 15, 2002: New house ag committee chair to be named; pork checkoff--the true cost to farmers; and GM contamination--just a matter of time before experimental crops end up on our dinner plates.
  • November 8, 2002: Thad Cochran to take farm policy reins – how far will he go? Farmers make Londoners smile – in the rain!
  • November 1, 2002: Chicken slaves, and honest talk from Swiss ag leaders
  • October 25, 2002: GMO labelling and the European Union

© 2002 ag comm

The Final Word comes to you each Friday by special arrangement. Alan Guebert's regular column, the Farm and Food File, is published weekly in more than 70 newspapers around the US and Canada. Contact him at