Standing on a platform at a press conference at the Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., farmers representing more than 50 groups see the CAFTA-DR as a “slam dunk.”

Farmers representing groups ranging from dairy to corn, from beef to almonds touted the benefits of CAFTA. “A can a day (of almonds) would go a long way in Central America,” says Susan Bronner of the Blue Diamond Almonds Cooperative.

But that's not the way everyone feels about CAFTA. “Sugar is the single thing that could kill this trade agreement,” former U.S. House Ag Committee chairman Larry Combest of Texas told a group at the North American Ag Journalists meeting in Washington, D.C. in mid-April. “The sugar provision would probably kill CAFTA if it were voted on today.”

At issue is a provision that would allow 100 million tons of sugar into the country from Central American countries. Detractors in high places say the provision could “open the door” for other commodities and could mean about 500 million tons of sugar coming into the country. Supporters say it's a must that CAFTA passes because of the wide-ranging benefits they see for U.S. producers.

The Bush administration says CAFTA would “level the playing field” and eliminate tariffs on U.S. products going into El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Products from those Central American countries currently flow duty-free into the U.S., while products exported into those countries from the U.S. face average tariffs of 11 percent — with some as high 60 percent according to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Currently, the U.S. has a trade deficit with the six countries. It would mean $1.5 billion of additional exports for the U.S., says Allen Johnson, the U.S. Trade Representative Office's chief agricultural negotiator. Officials say the U.S. would give up very little in return. In fact, Johnson says, it gives the U.S. an 8-to-1 increase of exports.

“This is really about the U.S. place in the world,” Johnson says. “If we fail, the U.S. runs the risk of taking a backseat. We have a clear choice between isolationism and reaching out and developing partnerships with developing democracies.”

Cal Dooley, a former U.S. congressman who represented California, says the agreement works for U.S. farmers. “A cotton farmer has a vested interest in the passage of CAFTA. This agreement, along with the Doha Round of the WTO negotiations, has the greatest potential of leveling the playing field.”

Johnson says the problems that were in NAFTA have been fixed in CAFTA.

“There's this impression that the entire sugar industry is opposed to CAFTA,” Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns says. “There are others (in the sugar industry) who see CAFTA as part of their future.”

Johanns did not name those members of the sugar industry who favor CAFTA, but said there are “cushions built into this agreement” and “it is a small amount of sugar in relation to the total U.S. consumption. I don't see the impact to sugar they are claiming. I come from a state with sugar and sugar beet production.”

Sugar producers in Midwestern states, including Nebraska, Johanns' home state, have weighed in against CAFTA. U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he didn't support CAFTA.

Johanns said he planned on “reaching out to U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.,” and others in Congress for their support. “It would be a good agreement for Georgia agriculture.”

In a meeting with ag journalists, Chambliss said he'd like to be able to support CAFTA. “I'm a free-trade guy,” he said. But, “if there is a conflict between trade agreements and the farm bill, it's my obligation to make sure the farm bill is carried out the way it was written.” To have a trade agreement that seeks to legislate, “flies in the face of the farm bill.”

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com