BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. — The notice still taped to the glass front door of the sprawling sugar beet processing plant is blunt: "Effective Friday, Oct. 30, 1992 . . . applications for employment will no longer be accepted."
It is last year's sign, posted after the plant--across the Red River of the North from this sleepy farm town--had completed hiring for the "fall campaign," when mounds of sugar beets the size of bloated softballs are cleaned, sliced, boiled and crystallized into processed sugar.
Residents here fear that such dark and disheartening notices will appear with increasing frequency if the controversial three-way free trade pact negotiated by the United States, Mexico and Canada is approved. If Congress ratifies the North America Free Trade Agreement this fall--the fight is certain to be bitter--it will take effect Jan. 1.
Then, say this town's farmers, politicians and business people, the sugar beets will disappear--and so, too, will the jobs they bring. In the fertile swath of land along the Minnesota-North Dakota border where the rich, charcoal-colored loam each autumn yields a bountiful harvest of bulbous brown sugar beets, the sweet life will turn sour, they fear.
"There would be complete devastation," said Lawrence Deal, who this year planted sugar beets on 185 of his 800 acres near Doran, a hamlet 10 miles southeast of here. "You'd see the whole area go broke."
Of course, the free trade agreement is likely to bestow significant benefits on other communities, where the lowering of trade barriers would lead to an increase in job-producing exports. Elsewhere in Minnesota, for instance, the pact would boost exports of corn, prepared foods, auto parts and agricultural chemicals, according to a business coalition supporting the agreement.
Down in Pleasanton, Neb., home of Randy Cruise, president of the National Corn Growers Assn., the accord could be a real boon. Eliminating Mexico's tariffs on corn from the United States would create a new market for American corn farmers and boost their income through increased sales and upward pressure on prices.
But that is little consolation to tiny Breckenridge (population 3,708). Even if NAFTA produces far more benefits than costs for the nation as a whole, as many experts anticipate, it could still upset the economics of the domestic sugar beet industry--an industry that has thrived in a protectionist cocoon that NAFTA would unravel.
The trade agreement would remove quotas that keep Mexican sugar out of the United States and reduce Mexican tariffs that now prevent soft drink bottlers using from using American corn syrup. Farmers here fear the changed rules would allow Mexico to flood the U.S. market with cheap surplus sugar that would bowl over the multibillion-dollar American sugar industry--whatever the gains for U.S. corn growners and sugar consumers.
There is more at issue than the profits of the 220 farmers growing sugar beets in this region, or the dollars and cents of life in an out-of-the-way pocket of rural America. The argument over sugar beets is a microcosm of the approaching public debate over the agreement as a whole. America, after all, is dotted with communities that share concerns like those of the people of Breckenridge.
Supporters of the trade accord cite studies projecting huge potential benefits from ratification of the three-way treaty, such as a net gain of some 200,000 jobs in the United States. In California, for example, proponents say the treaty would increase net employment by 30,000 to 40,000, with more than four new jobs for every one lost.
Yet even the treaty's most enthusiastic advocates acknowledge that for certain industries, regions and communities, NAFTA will produce far more losses than gains. Indeed, the biggest problem President Clinton and other supporters face is that the treaty's potential benefits tend to be diffuse and difficult to identify in advance, while the pain it would create is sharp and its sufferers ready to speak out.
Textile towns worry about cheap imports arriving free of the tariffs that have kept American products competitive. Teamsters worry about a relaxation of standards that would let Mexican truck drivers onto U.S. highways under fewer of the regulations that raise costs for American drivers. Factory towns are concerned about the appeal that lower labor costs and less stringent enforcement of environmental standards in Mexico would have to domestic manufacturers.
Such anxieties led Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), who represents Breckenridge, to announce his opposition to the trade agreement. And similar misgivings around the country almost certainly will turn congressional consideration of the pact into a contentious debate.
If these concerns are not overcome, they could doom the free-trade plan.
The pact was completed last year; side agreements intended to protect labor standards and the environment, and to guard specific industries against "import surges," were added in August.