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Farmers Wary Of ‘Fast Track’ Growers Want Assurances On Free Trade

American farmers’ philosophy on free trade usually can be summed up simply: export or perish.

Yet, even though one-quarter of U.S. agriculture sales rely on exports - amounting to $60 billion last year - not every sector of farming is embracing President Clinton’s call this fall for Congress to give him “fast track” authority to expand free trade deals.

Their experiences with the North American Free Trade Agreement and the last round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade have some big farm groups seeking guarantees before they give endorsements.

“Our members generally agree that free trade is the ultimate goal, but we believe that fair two-way trade must be the goal,” said Bob Stallman, a Texas rice farmer who heads the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Fast-track authority allows a president to negotiate deals that Congress must consider quickly and without amendments. Clinton has been without the authority since 1994, and Democratic opposition in Congress centers on how to guarantee foreign countries protect the environment and guarantee labor rights.

Much of U.S. agriculture is solidly behind Clinton. But some prominent groups aren’t so sure.

The Farm Bureau, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the American Sugar Alliance and the National Wheat Growers Association have all withheld endorsements. So have some farm groups in California, by far the largest farm state, and in Florida where winter vegetables face tough competition from Mexico.

Their main complaint is that U.S. trading partners haven’t lived up to the terms of past agreements or have exploited loopholes. They want Clinton to ensure that doesn’t occur in future pacts.

“We want to be for fast track. But we don’t want to get caught in a stampede that fails to take these things into account,” said Jack Roney of the Sugar Alliance.

Farm Bureau officials are lobbying for three main points before they agree to back fast-track:

A requirement that trading partners eliminate tariff barriers to U.S. products within specific time frames, so both sides know precisely how and when barriers will fall.

An insistence that other countries use sound science to resolve disputes over sanitary standards for U.S. products. Many countries raise questions - the Americans say they are phony - about these standards to block U.S. products such as poultry, vegetables and wheat.

Shortening the time it takes to resolve trade disputes, particularly those involving perishable products. Vegetables and fruit can rot on foreign docks under the current cumbersome process.

To this list, California and Florida farmers want continued import protections for products - such as tomatoes - that face heavy foreign competition. Californians also say U.S. wine import tariffs should not be lowered until other countries reduce theirs, which are higher.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman says he recognizes all these problems. But he insists that fast-track gives the United States the strength to negotiate such issues without unwarranted interference by Congress.

“Without the authority to negotiate, we wind up just accepting all these things that need to be fixed,” Glickman said.

His view is echoed by numerous big agribusiness firms and several large groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Corn Growers Association.

With the 1996 farm law gradually reducing government subsidies for farmers, supporters say it is imperative that foreign markets open quickly to ensure rural America’s economic health.

In addition, fast-track supporters say it’s imperative to prevent other countries from gaining footholds in foreign markets, such as Canada’s new deals with Chile and China or the European Union’s opening of Latin American markets.

“Absent those export markets, I and most American farmers face a daunting choice: cut production or see the price of our products plummet,” said Eugene Lang, an Iowa corn and soybean producer who appeared at a White House fast-track rally this week.

“My family farm survives due to reliance on international trade,” he said.


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