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NEW PACT WOULD MAKE FARM TRADE A TWO-WAY STREET

When I was governor of Nebraska, it sometimes seemed that the people there lived and breathed "Cornhusker Red." But I can't imagine how successful the Husker football team would have been if it were allowed only two men on the gridiron, while all the other teams could field 11 players.

The same is true today of the trading situation between American farmers and those of several countries in the Western Hemisphere. The current rules of the game create a playing field that is tilted strongly against U.S. agriculture.

The Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), under consideration in Congress, would level that playing field for American farmers, ranchers and food processors. U.S. negotiators have scored a touchdown, delivering a comprehensive agreement that will open doors for more U.S. farm sales to the nations of Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

The benefits of this agreement extend across our entire food and agriculture sector. The U.S. market is already open to these six countries, so products from those countries are flowing freely into our markets. In fact, more than 99 percent of those nations' products enter our market duty-free under other agreements. Yet our exports face stiff tariffs that could even increase under current trade rules. CAFTA-DR truly levels the playing field.

These nations are already good markets for us. They are close to home, and offer a natural transportation advantage. They bought $1.8 billion of our farm and food products last year. And, with expanding economies, rising incomes and 44 million consumers in the region, the outlook is bright for a steady expansion in sales. When CAFTA is passed, we could well double U.S. export sales to these countries.

In New York, agricultural exports are a vital part of the economy, valued at $454 million. After CAFTA is passed, commodities such as dairy products, beef, apples, potatoes and wines could be imported into CAFTA nations with dramatically lowered -- or eliminated -- tariffs.

Nearly every part of the U.S. farm sector will see benefits, and farm groups are strong advocates of the agreement. More than 50 leading U.S. agricultural industry and trade groups already are actively working in support of CAFTA-DR and urging Congress to approve it.

Some sugar growers are not enthusiastic about CAFTA. Some of them say the agreement would destabilize the existing U.S. sugar program. This is not the case. The sugar program will be unchanged by CAFTA, with the same prices that are now guaranteed to sugar growers.

Gaining greater access to the 96 percent of the world's consumers who live outside the United States is absolutely critical to the long-term growth and vitality of the U.S. farm and food sectors.

Americans want fair, two-way trade -- and CAFTA-DR is an opportunity to get it. If there is one thing I am absolutely confident about, it is that American farmers and ranchers will easily win if they are provided a level playing field.

Mike Johanns is the U.S. secretary of agriculture.