Minnesota, September 20, 2004 -- CropChoice news) --
Dan Morgan Washington Post: After years of
growing sugar beets in the rich soil of Minnesota's
Red River Valley, Mike Hasbargen figures he can handle
the gamut of minor catastrophes that occur with every
new crop: machinery gummed up by rocks and mud during
round-the-clock October harvests, stores of beets rotted
by unexpected early spring thaws and other small disasters.
But when Hasbargen strode into the field near his homestead
to pull up and inspect a plump, sugar-rich beet one
late summer day this year, he was more worried about
the trade policies of the Bush administration than the
vagaries of nature or equipment.
In May, the administration signed an agreement with
Central American countries that could open the door
to an additional 97,000 tons of imported sugar a year.
Trade officials say the concessions to Guatemala and
four other countries amount to no more than one day
of U.S. sugar production. The trade deal, they say,
would greatly benefit U.S. exporters who send beef,
pork, wheat, soybeans, corn and other products to Central
But those assurances have not kept the sugar issue
out of the presidential campaign unfolding in this corner
of the Farm Belt. Many in the beet industry -- a mainstay
of northwest Minnesota's economy -- have taken the trade
deal as a sign of fading support for sugar protections,
and they are fighting back with money and lobbying muscle.
Cane growers in Florida and Louisiana -- two other
political battlegrounds -- have joined the chorus.
"It hurts the president," said Hasbargen,
a self-described independent who voted for George W.
Bush in 2000 but is supporting Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.)
for president this time around, largely because of sugar.
The administration is not backing away from the treaty.
But it does not plan to send it to Congress for ratification
before the election. Kerry favors renegotiation but
has not said expressly whether he would redo the sugar
It has been decades since the "farm vote"
could swing an election to a Harry S. Truman or a Dwight
D. Eisenhower. Vast changes in U.S. agriculture have
shrunk the number of full-time commercial farmers from
millions to a statistically insignificant few hundred
But in many parts of the Farm Belt that will be crucial
in the election, economic prosperity is still linked
to farming, and farm issues still mobilize voters. In
a stark demonstration of agriculture's muscle last week,
farm-state senators tacked a $2.9 billion disaster relief
package for farmers and ranchers onto an unrelated spending
bill, overriding objections that the aid violated budget
Minnesota last voted for a Republican for president
in 1972. Yet Bush lost Minnesota in 2000 by just two
percentage points -- thanks in part to his 15-point
margin in the huge 7th Congressional District covering
the state's rural northwest quadrant, including the
beet-growing country along the Red River. Political
analysts say the president must run that strong in the
district this year to capture the state's 10 electoral
Strong farm prices are a clear asset for the president
right now, as are the conservative leanings of many
rural voters on issues such as gun control. But sugar
is a major wild card.
"Bush is in trouble in Minnesota," said the
7th District's representative, Collin C. Peterson, a
popular conservative Democrat and one of the strongest
advocates in Congress for the sugar program. The reasons,
he said, are the Iraq war, the budget deficit -- and
Peterson's district shows why agriculture matters.
The district is first in the nation in sugar and turkey
production, second in soybeans, third in wheat and fourth
in corn. Driving along the two-lane blacktops and gravel
section roads, one sees huge wheat combines churning
up clouds of dust and miles of ripening soybeans and
Politically, the district displays a distinctly independent
streak. Peterson, the Democrat, has won recent elections
by 2 to 1 margins, and voters often send Democrats to
the state Legislature. Ralph Nader garnered almost 5
percent of the vote in 2000, a sign that prairie populism
still flourishes here.
When Germans and Scandinavians settled these parts
in the 19th and 20th centuries, they found nothing but
a grassy prairie. For years, wheat was the main cash
crop. But in the 1950s, sugar beets were introduced
in the fertile, gently tilting plain on both sides of
the north-flowing Red River boundary between Minnesota
and North Dakota.
Rainfall, good soil and cold winters that allowed farmers
to store beets on their farms without spoilage gave
growers a competitive edge. Although beets are also
grown in western and other Midwestern states, the Red
River Valley accounts for more than 40 percent of U.S.
beet sugar production and one-fifth of all U.S. sugar
output. The area's $1 billion-a-year sugar crop, produced
on a half-million acres by more than 1,000 farmers,
supports about 32,000 jobs year-round in processing
and related services, according to the industry.
As big a business as it is, it is still family farming.
Hasbargen, two sons and a brother handle 2 1/2 square
miles of beets with the help of only a few hired hands.
During harvest, the Hasbargens all put in 12-hour shifts
day and night on the huge machines that "top"
(cut off the bushy leaves of the plants) and then dig
up the beets.
Underpinning the industry, however, is an elaborate
federal program that protects U.S. growers from a world
market glutted with cheap sugar. Quotas limit sugar
imports to the United States to about 1.2 million tons
a year, and the government sets the annual level of
production and enforces it through acreage allotments
that cooperatives hand down to individual farmers.
Although the program is supposed to operate at no cost
to taxpayers, the 2002 farm bill restored a requirement
that the federal government acquire surplus sugar from
refiners if prices fall below a set level, now about
22 cents a pound.
Dependence on Washington has made political activists
out of many beet farmers. The political arm of American
Crystal Sugar, the largest Red River Valley cooperative,
has poured $627,000 into congressional campaigns this
cycle, more than double the amount in 2000. "There
was strong support for Bush in the valley in 2000,"
said James Horvath, American Crystal's top official.
"Right now we're not exactly sure where the administration
is in regard to sugar."
To Peterson and many farmers, the Central American
Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), signed in May, is "the
camel's nose under the tent," foreshadowing more
concessions in trade deals with such big sugar producers
as Thailand, Colombia and eventually Brazil.
"The president was committed to an understanding
that sugar was different, that it was a sensitive crop,"
Hasbargen said. "If CAFTA is, as they said, a template,
that is the end of our industry as we know it."
So far, beet growers have received little sympathy
from Republican leaders in Congress. Earlier this year
Anthony Reed, an aide to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert
(R-Ill.), told a delegation of Minnesota beet growers
that they "should be very happy with what happened
in CAFTA -- it could have been worse," according
to Hastert spokesman John Feehery.
Beet farmer Victor Krabbenhoft, who chairs the 500-member
Minn-Dak beet cooperative, recalls responding: "The
president is trying to kill me and my industry, and
in all due respect, I will not kiss the ground he walks
on." Recent assurances by Vice President Cheney
that trade issues should be dealt with at the World
Trade Organization -- a position supported by the beet
industry -- do not appear to have satisfied all growers.
Whether Kerry can capitalize on the sugar issue is
uncertain, however. Although he now favors renegotiating
the treaty, Kerry cast votes against the sugar program
in 1996, 1999 and 2000. U.S. officials, citing the agreement's
broad benefits to U.S. farmers -- and a guarantee that
imports would be limited if the treaty proved damaging
to the sugar industry -- stand by the agreement.
They are backed by the American Farm Bureau Federation,
which estimates CAFTA will increase the value of U.S.
farm exports to Central America by $900 million a year
within 15 years.
"The balance we achieved was a good balance and
there's no need to reopen this," said Allen F.
Johnson, chief U.S. trade negotiator on agriculture.
Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.