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Bush official: We' won't trade away sugar industry

Damage control brought U.S.

Damage control brought U.S. Under Secretary of Agriculture Bill Hawk to sugar country Wednesday.

Hawk visited the Red River Valley to tell its sugar beet farmers that the Bush administration will not trade away their industry.

"We recognize this as being a very sensitive industry and our trade negotiators understand that," said Hawk, under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs.

The region's sugar beet farmers are skeptical, and offer the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement their reason.

President Bush's negotiators brokered CAFTA, a trade accord that will give six Central American countries greater access to the U.S. sugar market.

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If passed by Congress, CAFTA is expected to increase the countries' duty-free access to the U.S. sugar market by 110,000 metric tons in the first year of the agreement. Their access would grow by another 2 percent each year after that for the next 15 years.

The region's sugar beet farmers say CAFTA would damage their industry, but they could survive it.

Their biggest worry is that the Bush administration will put the nation's sugar industry on the negotiating table with other countries.

"We're very concerned that this is a template as they go forward," said Victor Krabbenhoft, a Clay County, Minn., sugar beet farmer and chairman of the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative.

Hawk said U.S. trade officials have not targeted the sugar industry for ruin.

He said CAFTA is not a precedent for other trade agreements.

During trade negotiations in January, U.S. officials refused to grant Australia more access to the U.S. sugar market, he said.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., accused the president of being too liberal on free trade, saying Bush is willing to give up an entire industry for minor trade gains in the overall agriculture sector.

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"Words are cheap," Conrad said. "What this administration has done is repeatedly put sugar on the table in a way that would decimate the industry."

The region's sugar beet farmers and processing plant workers have collected 25,000 signatures for a petition against CAFTA. They've sent copies of the petition to Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and members of Congress.

Hawk met with farmers Wednesday at the Fryn' Pan restaurant in Moorhead, where he talked about trade and other farm issues.

He also stopped by The Forum, where he campaigned for Bush and criticized Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry's record on agriculture.

Kerry has voted against extending the nation's sugar program, against increasing ethanol production and against disaster aid for farmers seven times, Hawk said.

"I don't think I've ever seen a clearer distinction between candidates on agriculture issues," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Zent at (701) 241-5526

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