(Web Editor's Note: This opinion article is a longer version than the one appearing in The Packer's Oct. 6 print edition).

(Oct. 6, GUEST COLUMN)

“Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule — and both commonly succeed, and are right.” — H.L Mencken (1880-1956).

Here we are, about a month away from the Nov. 4 elections, and some 10% to 20% of likely voters have yet to decide whether they want Obama/Biden or McCain/Palin in the White House.

Are you one of those?

Or maybe you show up among the 80%-plus who say they have decided —but let’s face it, the polls don’t mean as much when the curtain slides shut behind you.

Very little coming from the two campaigns the past few months has helped to light the way — infantile squabbling between the candidates and their largely faceless camps, intentionally dishonest paid advertisements, more talking-head pundits than you can count reinventing the news every evening, a lame-duck administration, and most recently the Congress working hard to squander what little public respect it has.

The core problem is that most of us take our votes seriously. If we didn’t, it wouldn’t matter, but we know it is the freedom to vote our conscience without fear of recrimination that makes the United States the greatest of nations.

That’s true even when the idiot the next booth over is crazy as a loon and voting all wrong. So our real challenge is reaching informed decisions despite the wall of political noise we face all day every day.

BUT WAIT, as the TV hucksters say. There is a way. It depends on learning where the candidates are — really are — on the issues. Easy to say, not always so easy to do. You can start by going to their web sites (www.barackobama.com or www.johnmccain.com), where you’ll find fairly thorough coverage of most major issues. Just remember, those blurbs are written to appeal to as many voters as possible and to offend as few as possible, so don’t expect much beyond fluff.

Still, if you read between the lines, you’ll learn a few things. Then you can get on the Internet and dig, which can be a frustrating process but generally pays off eventually.

Looking for a shortcut?

Maybe I can help shed a little light on a few issues that are near and dear to many of us in agriculture, and specifically in the produce industry.

Let’s take a quick look at three issues that should be of immediate importance to the fruit and vegetable sector: international trade, immigration reform, and the farm bill.

International trade

There is a real difference between Obama and McCain on this issue.

McCain has a long history of supporting trade expansion as an economic panacea for the U.S.

In brief, McCain hotly opposes government subsidies and puts all his marbles in the private-sector basket.

He is quick to point out that some 95% of all potential “customers” live outside the U.S. (a favorite Bush administration line). In fact, his agricultural platform revolves around trade expansion to replace subsidies.

This is nothing new for Republicans. Many of us remember back to the Earl Butz years when we were going to farm “fence post to fence post” and feed and clothe the world. And we almost did, for a little while.

But in the end, while the concept is alluring, it just hasn’t worked, and certainly can’t provide the safety net American agriculture depends on.

McCain is a vocal fan of reforming the World Trade Organization to increase U.S. exports, but sadly, the rest of the world hasn’t gotten the message, and probably won’t any time soon.

He has encouraged regional trade agreements (free trade agreements) in the absence of a WTO agreement. For the produce industry, FTA’s are at best a mixed bag: For the northern tier of states, where production favors fruit and vegetable crops not normally grown in volume in Latin America, the FTA’s may advance new markets. But for those of us in the more southern climes, who produce crops also grown below the U.S.-Mexico border, the FTA’s generally mean opening the huge U.S. market to low-overhead competition in exchange for a shot at their small and troublesome markets.

It is safe to say Obama parallels McCain on maintaining and expanding export competitiveness. However, he has been openly critical of free trade agreements, NAFTA specifically, and has indicated he might want to amend at least some provisions of that, and perhaps other, free trade agreements.

He voted against the Central American FTA. Throughout his campaign, the theme has been that the U.S. should not adopt policies or engage in practices that move good jobs — and buckets of U.S. dollars — offshore.

Obama, while recognizing the economic realities, remains a supporter of ethanol and alternative energy development, as a way to reduce the nation’s dependence on imported oil.

McCain also advocates an alternative energy program (along with increased domestic drilling and more nuclear) but is not friendly to the ethanol industry.

Immigration reform

The problem here is that nobody knows which John McCain we’re dealing with.

Back before he was a serious presidential candidate, McCain was one of the leaders of the effort to craft good, intelligent comprehensive immigration reform, and in that effort, he alienated many of his Republican colleagues, especially the dead end ideologues in the House who just couldn’t — and still can’t — stomach “amnesty.”

More recently, he has caved to the hard right and now says we must have border security before the other essential components of immigration reform can be considered.

To many, this is just a backdoor way to kill desperately needed legislation. McCain supporters insist that he has simply taken this hardened position to get through the political silly season, and as soon as he’s president, he’ll revert to the good ’ol cranky, rebellious John McCain of yesteryear.

Really? Maybe — maybe not.

In the intervening months, McCain has made promises to the right. He has committed himself to a much narrower approach than previously, and he has repeatedly said he has “seen the light.”

What light?

It looks pretty dark and dismal from the industry’s perspective. While those in the produce industry who see themselves as “natural supporters” of McCain would like to believe he’d come back to the reasoned middle on this key issue, there’s absolutely no solid reason to believe that. Unless, of course, he’s privately whispered into the right (make that left) ears that he’s prepared to flip-flop again. Imagine the response from the “base” if that were to get out.

As for Obama, he was not front and center in writing last year’s comprehensive reform bill, but importantly, he did vote for it, and frequently has said that the three legs of the immigration stool — border security, undocumented aliens currently in the U.S., and a credible guest worker program — must be addressed simultaneously.

While this issue has never pushed to the top of the debate agenda the way many thought it would (because it’s just too hot a potato for either camp?), Obama has said on several occasions that he supports comprehensive reform.

In a July 16 speech to American Farm Bureau presidents, Obama said “My goal would be in the first year to have comprehensive immigration reform done.” He went on to say, “My commitment to you, at a minimum, is that we would have the AgJobs portion of the immigration reform package done, hopefully by that first year.”

Farm bill

If you’re looking for one issue to hang your vote on, this probably is the one.

The farm bill is a sweeping piece of legislation that lays out the federal government’s farm policies for several years in advance — generally five years.

In a nutshell, both candidates advocate reducing farm payment limits and limiting assistance to family farmers.

But in the end, Obama voted for the bill, while McCain did not. Obama said the legislation had more good provisions than bad. McCain, in a May 20 op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, said “I may surprise some people by saying what few presidential candidates would ever be willing to say out loud in farm country: I’d veto the farm bill — a bloated expansion in federal spending that will do more harm than good.”

In fairness, McCain’s tightwad ways go back many years and have much more to do with payments to subsidized crops than to provisions for fruits and vegetables.

But the point is, he would have thrown us out with the rest of the piggies if he could (remember, President Bush did veto the bill, but Congress overrode the veto).

For the produce industry, this year’s farm bill was a huge, hard fought breakthrough—the first time in history we asked for, and got, a legitimate seat at the federal farm policy table.

We did not seek the subsidies John McCain so despises, but we did seek help with foreign pest exclusion, school and institutional feeding programs, state block grants, access to conservation programs, help securing overseas markets, additional research in key areas, and a number of other things truly needed by this industry. John McCain would have flushed that all down the D.C. toilet.

Obama, in a multipage document called Real Leadership for Rural Texas (he has one for every state, I suppose), says all the right things about most of the subissues, but there is one interesting little paragraph under the heading: Help Fruit, Vegetable and Other Specialty Crop Growers. It says, in part, “Growers of fruits, vegetables, nursery, and floriculture do not take part in price support or other programs targeting commodities, but this is not license for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ignore the interests of this $50 billion sector of the American economy.”

It goes on to say that while in the Senate, Obama supported increasing programs “… that focus on specialty crops in the … farm bill.”

As President, it says, he will work for programs ... “designed specifically for specialty crop growers … support ensuring schoolchildren have access to more fruits and vegetables as part of the school meals program … encourage the consumption of more fruits and vegetables…and enforce Buy American requirements to protect specialty crops.”
At least he differentiates between us and the rest of agriculture.

Moreover, Obama has indicated a willingness to elevate agriculture’s role in the decision making process. In a Sept. 5 letter to the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, he says: “… I understand and appreciate the need to get our nation’s agriculture policies right. Under an Obama administration, we will make it a priority to bring stakeholders to the table when important public policy decisions impacting agriculture are considered. In addition, I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best available, scientifically valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees. … And finally, aside from the best available science, my administration will take into consideration the economic consequences of our decisions.”

For all you cynics — and who isn’t after two years of Wolf Blitzer and the “best political team on television” — it would be easy to dismiss these promises as just another tanker load of political biogas.

Maybe it is, but I can recall no time in recent history when a serious presidential candidate, of either stripe, has made such specific assurances to the industry to listen to our input, follow the science and take the economics into consideration.

I’ll end this with a couple of quotes from Neil E. Harl, emeritus professor of economics at Iowa State University, in a recent Des Moines Register editorial:

Harl said: “For those of us who care deeply about the long-term health of the agricultural sector … it is deeply disturbing to read and hear Sen. John McCain’s comments about the sector and about the 2008 farm bill. … My concern is not so much about his broadside against farm subsidies … but the fact he apparently does not understand that a huge part of the $300 billion (farm bill) goes for food assistance, nutrition, conservation, trade, environmental protection, country-of-origin labeling of food products and meat inspection. … The senator apparently has accepted at face value the critical comments from some … apparently without learning just how important the farm bill is to the health and well-being of our citizens. … But the more serious concern is that his widely publicized remarks indicate a deep-seated antagonism toward the agricultural sector itself.”

Few of us will base our votes solely on agricultural concerns, nor should we.

But in the four years ahead, we will go to Washington many times, troop up to the Hill, visit USDA and other federal agencies, wordsmith innumerable letters that seem terribly important at the time and mostly irrelevant a week later, give money, sit through endless mind numbing meetings, do all the things we do to try to ensure equitable and educated treatment of our interests.

For my part, I don’t want to pursue the industry’s objectives before an antagonistic administration hard wired to exhausted, outdated ideology.

I come from a long line of Republicans. I’ve counted myself a moderate Republican for a long time. I was a political appointee in both terms of the Reagan administration. I’ve admired John McCain’s gutsy willingness to take on his own party — especially the hard right —when he felt the need.

But in the end, Barack Obama is the future of U.S. agriculture and of the nation. John McCain is a courageous hero, but he is the past.

John McClung is the President of the Texas Produce Association. The Board of Directors of the association has taken no position on the Presidential elections. The views expressed are solely McClung’s.

Obama looks toward future of agriculture industry
John McClung
Texas Produce Association