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Sugar growers send message

U.S.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has little chance of leaving Fargo today without getting an earful about the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

"He's coming to sugar country and we want to make sure he hears our message," said Jeff Schweitzer, spokesman for Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar Co.

The message Johanns will hear is that CAFTA is an ill-conceived trade agreement that will hurt the Red River Valley's high-dollar sugar beet industry, other farm sectors and add to the nation's growing trade deficit, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson said Wednesday.

Johnson was one of four speakers at an anti-CAFTA news conference at Fargo's Holiday Inn. About 25 people, mostly sugar beet growers and industry leaders, attended the meeting.

"Let there be no doubt that when Secretary Johanns is in North Dakota tomorrow, he will say that CAFTA is good for the country," Johnson said.

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The North Dakota Legislature unanimously disagrees. It passed a resolution calling for CAFTA's defeat, he said.

Johnson will meet with Johanns today to discuss CAFTA and other agriculture issues.

Because of similar trade accords, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, the United States is on a record-setting pace to import more farm products than it exports, said Steve Williams, a Fisher, Minn., farmer and president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association.

If approved by Congress, CAFTA will expand trade between the United States and six Latin American countries - El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.

CAFTA would increase foreign sugar producers' duty-free access to the United States by 110,000 metric tons in the first year of the agreement. That access would grow by 2 percent each year for the next 15 years.

The trade agreement could be the template for other accords that would destroy the nation's sugar industry, warned Richard Schlosser, vice president of the North Dakota Farmers Union.

The American Farm Bureau Federation supports CAFTA's passage, the organization's president, Bob Stallman, said during a recent stop in Moorhead.

An economic analysis completed by the Farm Bureau shows that agricultural exports would grow by $945 million annually by eliminating tariffs on U.S. farm goods.

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The same study found that the U. S. sugar beet and cane industry would lose between $70 million and $80 million annually to increased imports from CAFTA partners.

Williams said reports that CAFTA will expand trade for U.S. farmers are "empty promises."

The CAFTA countries are a small market. With a gross domestic product equal to that of New Haven, Conn., the countries are a cash-strapped market, he said.

"Supporters say that it will be a boon for agriculture," Williams said. "Well, America's farmers and ranchers won't listen this time."

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

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