California farmers welcome free-trade deal

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 11, 2011 

WASHINGTON — California farmers have waited a very long time for the three free-trade deals set for House approval Wednesday.

They have also weighed in, a lot.

Now, years of free-trade lobbying are about to pay off, as the House appears on the verge of approving deals to lower tariffs in South Korea, Panama and Colombia. Farmers, in particular, believe they're the big winners.

"Agriculture has been consistent and very clear in supporting these agreements," Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League, said Tuesday. "I think most of us involved in agriculture have been looking forward to getting them through."

Driving the point home, Bedwell's group joined 23 other California farm organizations in writing the state's 53 House members this week urging support of the trade agreements.

The farm groups' letter punctuated an extended campaign, not all of it public. Organizations from the California Farm Bureau Federation to the California Strawberry Commission, and California-based companies from Hewlett-Packard to Chevron, all retained lobbyists specifically to work on the trade deals, Senate lobbying records show.

"Placing it before Congress to achieve final passage has long been a goal for our two-billion-dollar citrus industry," Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, said of the South Korea deal.

First negotiated during George W. Bush's presidency, the trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia are all but certain to pass the Republican-controlled House. Freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, spoke for many GOP lawmakers when he declared the trade deals will "create thousands of jobs and promote local economic growth."

The approvals are staged to occur just one day before South Korean President Lee Myung-bak arrives at the White House for a state visit.

The anticipated House approvals will come over the opposition of Democrats, many of whom will vote against the trade deals because of labor, local job-loss or human rights concerns.

"We're looking to have at least two-thirds of the House Democrats to vote against all three bills," said Beatriz Lopez, senior field organizer for Public Citizen.

In some cases, California redistricting has complicated the political calculations. Lopez noted, for instance, that freshman Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, lost many Korean-American constituents in redistricting, contributing to vote-counters' uncertainty Monday about what she will do.

Vast in scope, the bills implementing the three free-trade pacts touch on nearly everything that can be traded across international borders. The South Korean free-trade agreement alone spans more than 1,000 pages worth of text and accompanying documents.

The deals are even comprehensive in identifying their omissions. Korean and U.S. negotiators, for instance, specified that "gambling and betting services" are off the table, leaving each country to regulate them as they choose.

But while not limited to agriculture, the free-trade bills do highlight it at times.

Colombia, for instance, would immediately grant duty-free access to U.S. grapes, almonds and citrus fruit. Panama would immediately end tariffs on U.S. cotton and most fruit.

South Korea's potential, in particular, has long mesmerized Californians. Last year, California exported $8 billion worth of products to the nation of 48 million residents, making it the state's fifth-largest market.

The South Korean trade deal would immediately eliminate duties on almonds, raisins, wine and roughly two-thirds of other U.S. agricultural exports. This should make some California products considerably cheaper and more competitive. Currently, for instance, South Korea imposes a 15 percent tariff on U.S. wine and an 8 percent tariff on almonds.

Other barriers would stay intact, or would take longer to fall.

South Korea's rice tariffs, for instance, would stay the same, and the country's beef tariffs would only be phased out after 15 years. For some U.S. grapes, South Korean tariffs wouldn't fall to zero for up to 17 years.

Because of delays in bringing the deal reached in 2007 before Congress, this elimination of all grape tariffs would come nearly a quarter-century after U.S. and Korean negotiators agreed to it.

"Better late than never," Bedwell said.

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