WASHINGTON – Sugar beet farmer Alan Welp fears a new free trade agreement with Central America (search) would wreck his industry.
Every pound of foreign sugar (search) shipped to the United States is a pound that U.S. growers will store or just not grow, Welp said.
"We are already an oversupplied market," said Welp, who grows sugar, corn and wheat on 3,500 acres in northeast Colorado. "There's going to be huge job loss, and it will put a lot of farmers and processors out of business. So the negatives, in my opinion, far outweigh any of the positives."
Welp is an example of the problems confronting President Bush as he seeks approval of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA (search), negotiated last year with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, plus the Dominican Republic.
The administration needs support from agriculture to win the approval of Congress, but it doesn't have it yet. While admitting they lack the 218 votes needed in the House to pass it, Republican leaders still plan to bring it up in May.
Among the opponents is Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who has said he fears CAFTA would alter certain farm programs. He represents a cotton state, and the cotton and textile industries are wary of the agreement.
Gary Hufbauer, an economist and trade expert with the Washington-based Institute for International Economics, said Chambliss' gripe is with Bush's proposal to cut U.S. cotton subsidies and a World Trade Organization (search) ruling that they are unfair to producers in Brazil.
"What he's really getting at is, he wants a commitment from the administration that it will not cut cotton subsidies, and it will not implement the WTO decision," Hufbauer said. "That would be the big cake with the ice cream on top for Chambliss."
Under the accord, the United States and the other six countries agree to phase out protective tariffs and quotas on most farm products and food over several years.
Supporters say CAFTA would give more choices to Americans, who already eat and drink an ever-growing array of foreign fish, fruit, wine and other products. Backers also say it's good for the economy, and for agriculture in particular.
Of the estimated $2.7 billion increase in export sales to the six countries, agriculture would get a 12 percent share, according to U.S. International Trade Commission estimates. The six countries represent a sliver — one-half of 1 percent — of total U.S. farm exports, according to the ITC.
Any increase in exports keeps prices high and is good for agriculture, said Nebraska hog farmer Joy Philippi. She's not worried about competition from imports, because most food and farm products from CAFTA countries already enter the United States duty-free.
"We'll be able to send more pork down there, and as these free-trade agreements do their magic in the economy, they will be able to afford more pork," said Philippi, who is president-elect of the National Pork Producers Council.
Until now, CAFTA's foes have drowned out supporters like Philippi.
Sugar growers have rounded up support from other producers, notably cattle ranchers who are suing to block Canada from resuming cattle shipments to the United States. The U.S. border has been closed to Canadian cattle since the May 2003 discovery of mad cow disease in Alberta. Labor groups are also fighting CAFTA.
Supporters are about to get more vocal. The major farm and food groups and big agribusiness companies are backing CAFTA and have begun lobbying farmers and Congress to support the trade deal.
"We're going to have to get our people energized and understanding it, and get them to speak out," said Philippi, who visited Capitol Hill last week to seek support from Congress. "You know, there's always that squeaky wheel that's heard."
Foes of the deal have "generated quite a lot of noise," said J.B. Penn, undersecretary for the Agriculture Department's Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services.
"Once we begin to get the facts out, and once we have an opportunity to explain the benefits of this trade agreement, then people begin to say, 'Oh, I didn't realize that,"' Penn said in an interview.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns touts the deal in virtually every meeting and speech. Allen Johnson, the U.S. trade negotiator for agriculture, recently traveled to Nebraska to make the