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Turn off the spigots; other news

(Friday, June 17, 2005 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Central American trade debate flies off the reality map
2. Listen Up
3. Half-truths, falsehoods and bias
4. American farm groups support R-CALF
5. Turn off the spigots

1. Central American trade debate flies off the reality map

By ALAN GUEBERT/Farm and Food Columnist

You know you're off the reality map when the American Farm Bureau's former president, Iowan Dean Kleckner, publicly praises the Humane Society of the United States for its support of Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Yet there was Kleckner, chairman of trade-touting, biotech-boosting Truth about Trade, praising Patricia Forkan, the executive vice president of the Humane Society, in a May 13 press release for having the "courage" to support CAFTA despite the near-certainty of being "accused of heresy by the Torquemadas of a Green Inquisition."

Torquemadas of a Green Inquisition? Whoa, we're a long way from Iowa.

Forlornly, Forkan never felt Kleckner's love.

Five days after the Big Ag's favorite front man made a play for Forkan's green heart, her group blasted the upcoming weekly public television series "America's Heartland" as a likely "monumental whitewash" that "will only mislead viewers about the nature of American agriculture."

The "whitewash's" chief underwriters? American Farm Bureau and Truth about Trade's main mistress Monsanto.

The lovefest-turned-slugfest is a common, colorful thread to run through the CAFTA quilt now that Congressional committees have taken up hearings to prepare for a hoped-for July vote on the controversial pact.

Last Tuesday U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns spent only an hour in the CAFTA hot seat at the Senate Ag Committee hearing before skedaddling. Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton called Johanns' quick departure a "disservice" to committee members from sugar-producing states who had questions for the Secretary.

Johanns' departure (he turned USDA's defense of the Central American agreement over to two trade subordinates: ag's main man at the U.S. Trade Rep's office, Allen Johnson, and USDA's main link to multinational grain traders, Undersecretary J.B. Penn) is just the latest example of the agreement's boosters avoiding inconvenient facts and fire.

For instance, while the White House and Johanns' claim the agreement will boost trade between the U.S. and the deal's six Latin American nations, an August 2004 analysis by the U.S. International Trade Commission shows the U.S. trade deficit with those nations actually growing from about $2.2 billion in 2003 to $2.4 billion when implemented.

The analysis also notes that the American Farm Bureau's estimate of $1.5 billion in increased ag exports to the Central American countries is nearly five-times greater than ITC's forecast: just $328 million.

But even that modest news is less so because while "exports of corn and rice... are likely to increase substantially," estimates the ITC, the overall impact will be "negligible on total U.S. production and employment."

Indeed, according to the trade commission, "After full phase-in of tariff elimination," - a 15- to 20-year period for many ag products -U.S. exports to CAFTA countries "as a whole would increase by $2.7 billion" while U.S. imports "as a whole would increase by $2.8 billion."

And then there's the big bomb, sugar. Under the deal, the Central American nations will send an additional 109,000 metric tons of duty-free sugar, into the U.S. immediately. That amount will rise slowly to 153,147 metric tons in 15 years then increase by 2,000 metric tons annually "in perpetuity."

USDA says the increased sugar imports amount to less than a "teaspoon and a half per week per American" or "little more than one day's production in the United States." That tiny amount is nothing in the grand and great scheme of free trade, Johann insists.

Maybe not now, says the American Sugar Alliance, but the Central American sugar imports, if allowed, have "21 other sugar-producing countries lined up like planes on the tarmac expecting the same sweetheart deal." The agreement opens the door "to eliminate U.S. sugar production," the alliance concludes.

As Jack Roney, ASA's chief economics and policy analyst, told a Senate hearing in April, "It's very simple. When you import subsidized foreign sugar, you export U.S. jobs."

It is very simple: trade should create more U.S. jobs than it eliminates - which recent trade deals have not done.

But Johanns' and front men like Kleckner never talk about jobs. Instead, they, like Mary Poppins, merrily croon "Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."

Alan Guebert is a freelance agricultural journalist. He can be reached at agcomm@sbcglobal.net or Alan Guebert, 502 W. Fourth St., Delavan, IL 61734.

2. Listen Up,

by Richard Oswald

With Nebraska only three miles and a river away from my back door, I have always been interested in the goings on of the state I would be citizen of, if Ole Muddy had shifted slightly to the east. In some ways I know more about Nebraska than I do my own state of Missouri. Way up here in the Northwest, I seldom see or hear from the Missouri governor, but my nearby Nebraska radio and TV stations carry plenty of news from next door.

Mike Johanns seemed like a pretty good governor when he took office. Always easy going, with his thoughts collected and in perfect order, I thought that Nebraska had hit a home run when they elected him. But a few months ago the train seemed to come off the track when Mike came out in favor of abolishing, or at least re-examining, Initiative 300, the Nebraska law that limits corporate ownership of farm land. That was after Anne Veneman bid a reluctant farewell to USDA. I guess Mike was hearing voices the rest of us couldn't.

At the time I thought his timing strange. Potential candidates for Ag Sec were rumored to be folks like Charlie Kruse, Missouri Farm Bureau president, or Nebraska Democratic Senator Ben Nelson; a surreal but interesting choice. It appears that when the smoke screen lifted the real candidate was former Democrat Mike and he was earning his Republican stripes by attacking one of Nebraska's most famous populist statutes.

Now Mike is going around the country using his newly cultivated gift of selective hearing. I doubt that he will hear much that will change the collective mind of our current administration, but I'll bet that when he gets back to Washington he will have confirmed hearing that America is 100 percent behind the leadership of USDA no matter what it says.

Now I have to admit that parts of what I am hearing from Washington these days are kind of exciting. Growth for ethanol and biodiesel is whittling away the surplus of grain and oilseeds, and it sounds like a period of sustained growth for producers of those crops. That may even be good news for other farmers on the fringe of the mainstream row crop production areas by making what they produce even more crucial to the demand-driven market. But I still have some nagging doubts I'd like to verbalize, if only I were sure someone would heed me.

For one thing, why is it that we are moving toward total traceability of what we grow, when all that tracing is going to be the proprietary secret of government and big business? Radio tags look like a great idea if only there were room on them for just one tiny phrase "Made in the USA." Right now it's a good bet that the tags themselves will be identified as to country of origin without revealing the origin of the commodity they adorn. Are you listening Mike?

And all this bioenergy initiative we're hearing about now doesn't address how open U.S. borders will be in 10 years to competing supplies of sweeteners, alcohol, oil, grain, and meat. It's a good bet that WTO rules will be honored with regard to farm subsidy and tariff, so the bio- revolution takes on even greater importance to domestic farm profitability. With everyone worried about CAFTA coming off its hinges, I have to say that CAFTA looks more like a doorless gaping access that opens all the way to Tierra del Fuego. So now it's my turn Mike, I'm listening, what do you say about that?

It's great when national leaders listen instead of doing all the talking, but I've found they listen best in October of an election year. Last time I checked this is June and the election is three long years away.

At least that's what I heard.

Richard R. Oswald
Langdon, Mo.

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Half-truths, falsehoods and bias

by Michel A. King

King is president of Old Mill Power Co., a Charlottesville-based, family-owned energy trading business that buys and sells electricity produced using renewable energy sources such as wind.

Highland New Wind Development, a family-owned business based in Harrisonburg, has proposed a utility-scale wind energy project for a ridgetop in Highland County. If built, the project would be the first of its kind in Virginia. If successful, it would likely to lead to similar proposals for other parts of the state.

Supporters say HNWD's project is technically and economically feasible, will produce useful amounts of electricity at reasonable prices with acceptable environmental impacts, will provide a significant boost to the local economy during construction and will contribute significant amounts of tax revenue to the local government throughout its expected 20-year service life.

They also say it will help reduce air pollution and global warming, help reduce our nation's dependence on foreign energy sources, be good for national and state security, protect electricity consumers from volatile fuel price increases and can be an important step toward creating permanent jobs for Virginians in wind energy system manufacturing, sales, installation, operations and maintenance.

Various opponents have, at one time or another, challenged every one of those claims, often citing anti-wind position papers published by energy analyst Glenn Schleede of Reston as their expert source. Among them are Patti Reum and Tom Brody, whose commentary ("Keep giant wind turbines from marring the Highlands") was published in The Roanoke Times on May 28.

Unfortunately, Schleede never mentions in any of the position papers he's authored that I've seen that he's a former senior vice president of the National Coal Association. Could this be a matter that Schleede didn't think relevant to our assessment of his objectivity? Consider, for example, these other facts that Schleede, Reum and Brody apparently think we don't need to know:

Schleede says utility-scale wind energy projects produce "very little" energy. Reum and Brody call the amount "insignificant." Assuming a 33 percent capacity factor (which is probably low considering the high quality of the wind resource at the proposed project site), my estimate of the average annual output of HNWD's 39 megawatt project is 113 million kilowatt hours - enough energy per year to power 16,000 homes using an average of 600 kilowatt hours each per month. At current average wholesale electricity prices of approximately 4 cents per kilowatt hour, that's more than $4 million per year in electricity revenue.

"Very little?" "Insignificant?" Maybe to a senior vice president of the National Coal Association who lives in northern Virginia, but certainly not to a family-owned business in Harrisonburg.

How about the claim that wind energy projects wouldn't be possible without the federal government's Production Tax Credit for wind energy? The other half of that story is that every energy technology benefits to one degree or another from federal and state "policy support" (preferential tax treatment and other incentives intended to stimulate economic development).

In Virginia, we even have a state-mandated PTC for coal producers, which reduces the cost of producing electricity with Virginia coal. We also have a law passed in 2004 that, among other things, authorizes the use of ratepayer dollars to compensate any utility - but not an independent power producer like HNWD - willing to build a 500-megawatt coal-fired power station in southwest Virginia for such a facility's full life-cycle costs plus profits.

Based on the "Price To Compare" printed on my latest (May 2005) Dominion Virginia Power bill, this latter deal (which is for utilities only) is currently worth about 5.76 cents per kilowatt hour for the entire service life of the coal-fired facility. The federal PTC for qualifying wind facilities is only 1.9 cents per kilowatt hour for just the first 10 years of their service life.

If Virginians such as Schleede and those opposed to the HNWD project are not aware of the state's generous policy support for utility-owned, coal-fired power stations, they are not the energy experts they would like us to believe they are.

And if they are aware of such state-level policy support for utility-owned, coal-fired power stations and fail to mention such programs when they complain about the federal PTC for wind energy, they're doing a grave disservice to the decision makers and ordinary citizens they're attempting to influence with incomplete, one-sided information.

When all of the relevant facts are "on the table," as Reum and Brody put it, it will be obvious that the proposed HNWD project is technically and economically feasible, will produce useful amounts of electricity with acceptable environmental impacts at reasonable prices, and will have all of the other benefits the developer has claimed in its public statements.

I look forward to being among the first customers to purchase HNWD's clean, green, made-in-Virginia, wind-generated electricity and wish the developer well with the proposed project.

4. American Farm Groups Support R-CALF

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

The June 1 "amici curiae", (meaning friends of the court) brief by 67 farm and consumer groups in support of R-CALF's bid to keep Canadian cattle out of the U.S. is not unexpected. In court cases like this, many groups have a stake in the outcome and want to get their two bits worth to the court. What is somewhat distressing is the list of groups that signed on.

But before we get to that, let's look at what they signed on to. The brief originated from David Domina, a lawyer well known in American cattle circles because he spearheaded the court case that accused Tyson Foods of using captive supplies to drive down the price of cattle. Domina, and the farmers he represented won that one. Well, sort of. The jury agreed and awarded ranchers in the class action suit over one billion dollars. Unfortunately, the judge in the case used his discretion to toss out the verdict and financial award.

Domina appeared to be a sharp cookie in that case, but his support of R-CALF is somewhat less inspiring. The 31-page brief is mostly a restatement of R-CALF's contentions. It makes the same ludicrous claim that tens of millions of Americans will be at risk of contracting variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease if cows from Canada's "diseased herd" are allowed into the U.S. (Note that after having eaten an estimated one million cows with BSE, one hundred and forty-odd souls contracted vCJD in Britain.)

In a ludicrous comparison, the brief claims that Canadian prescription drugs are not allowed into the U.S. because of a lack of safety standards. It notes that prescription drugs are only ingested in small quantities, while the average American eats 62 pounds of beef a year! (The authors pretend not to know that bans on Canadian drugs are to protect American drug manufacturers, not consumers.)

Much of the rest of the brief is filled with the same piercing logic and fetish for accuracy. And to think I once admired David Domina!

Reading the list of the groups that signed on to the brief brought me a deep sense of sadness. Included were both the American National Farmers Union and the National Farmers Organization. These groups have often collaborated and exchanged ideas with Canada's National Farmers Union. NFU members must be feeling a sense of betrayal.

Another shock came from the presence of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, which is supported by the American Catholic Bishops. This group has actively supported many farm and rural causes. An official with the group recently stated, "We care about small and moderate-sized family farms in the United States, which can also be negatively affected by current U.S. agriculture policy."

Too bad this worthy organization can't also care about the small and moderate sized Canadian farms that have been devastated by R-CALF's protectionism.

The Organization for Competitive Markets signed on to the brief. This farm organization has complained bitterly about the lack of competition among packers in the U.S. Yet a direct result of the ban on Canadian cattle has been the closure of small American packers and an increase in the control of the industry in both Canada and the U.S. by the big four.

The largest group to sign is the Consumer Federation of America. It seems to be motivated by concerns for the health of Americans. The CFA is a very large group with lots of resources. One would hope it understood the miniscule risks associated with BSE, but apparently not. Mind you, its support of American farmers, no matter how ill conceived, is something Canadian farmers could wish for. The Consumers' Association of Canada has regularly tried to kill supply management in Canada, claiming it forces consumers to pay too much for poultry and dairy products. The Consumers' Association of Canada doesn't give a thought for the welfare of Canadian farmers.

The amici curiae brief will likely not add much to the argument. Nevertheless, having so many prominent groups sign on will send a signal to the politicians in the U.S. And while Canadian farmers might be crying, at least the packers in Canada are laughing all the way to the bank. If the American groups had a lick of sense, surely they wouldn't think that is a good thing.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax beingessner@sasktel.net

5. Turn off the spigots

By Julene Bair
Prairie Writers Circle

It is no mystery why Great Plains farmers irrigate. My farming father and grandfathers struggled against the weather odds in our dry western end of Kansas their whole lives. It seldom rained enough, and each year they took a gut-wrenching gamble planting their wheat.

In the late 1960s, technology came to the rescue. My father put in his first irrigation well. With well water, he could engineer his own rainfall and also grow more lucrative crops such as corn and soybeans. When his old heart finally failed him 30 years after he began irrigating, he owned five wells.

Our farm's original well happens to be among those monitored by the Kansas Geological Survey. I visited the agency's Web site recently and was as dismayed by a graph there as I had been watching my father's failing vital signs on the hospital monitor. Both tracked the approach of death -- with one significant difference. My father died naturally at the end of a normal human lifespan. We are killing much of the Ogallala Aquifer, draining water that took thousands of years to accumulate. Without this waste, the water would sustain life for many generations to come.

During his evolution from dryland to irrigated farming, my father became part of a system that can't be sustained, because it depends on burning nonrenewable energy to pump nonrenewable water from this ancient aquifer, which stretches from South Dakota to Texas. Most of this energy and water goes into producing corn that is then fed to cattle.

To grow corn, farmers plowed up more of their grass.

"How else could we feed the world?" my father would say when I lamented the loss.

But he could have fed the world more healthfully and less wastefully if he had skipped the corn and shipped beef directly from his grass to the table. Compared with grain-fattened feedlot beef, grass-fed beef is much lower in artery-clogging saturated fat and contains more omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to aid cardiovascular health. When we eat meat from grass-fed animals, we profit from their ability to convert protein from a self-renewing resource, the grasses that grew here in the first place.

I used to accuse my father of being environmentally insensitive. He knew that the aquifer was finite and allowed that "they will have to stop us eventually" -- they being the government.

"Until they do, though," he said, "I got mine!"

He loved to infuriate me with that response. I especially hated that the federal farm program underwrote the waste by offering price supports for corn.

But as one of my father's profiteering heirs, now I too am part of the entrenched and inefficient system. Turning off the spigots would reduce the flow of cash land rent into my pocket by two-thirds.

That prospect troubles me. But not as much as other numbers. There are more than 880 irrigation wells in our county. Out of our five alone we have pumped more than 6 billion gallons of water. That's enough to keep the 5,000 people of Goodland, the town nearest our farm, in water for more than 10 years. An aquarium covering a football field would need walls over 2.5 miles high to hold that much water.

Our farm recently signed up for a government conservation program that is helping us cut our water use by 50 percent. But even at this rate we are wasting water.

The time has come for "them" to stop us -- all of us. Instead of price supports for corn, Plains farmers need help switching back to dryland crops or grass-fed livestock. Among the dryland crops may be seed sources of oil that could be turned into biodiesel, reducing our nation's dependence on fossil fuels.

I would vote for any legislator who pushes to end irrigation out of the Ogallala. I believe that I am not the only farmer or farm heir who would. We grew up on this land drinking this water, and know its real value can't be measured monetarily. We will rally behind genuine leaders who will argue their own consciences and awaken ours.

Julene Bair is author of "One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter." She wrote this essay for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.