BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. -- After years of growing sugar beets in the rich soil of the Red River Valley, Mike Hasbargen figures he can handle the gamut of minor catastrophes that occur with every new crop: machinery gummed up by rocks and mud during round-the-clock October harvests, stores of beets rotted by unexpected early spring thaws and other small disasters.
But when Hasbargen strode into the field near his homestead to pull up and inspect a plump, sugar-rich beet one late summer day this year, he was more worried about the trade policies of the Bush administration than the vagaries of nature or equipment.
In May, the administration signed an agreement with Central American countries that could open the door to an additional 97,000 tons of imported sugar a year. Trade officials say the concessions to Guatemala and four other countries amount to no more than one day of U.S. sugar production. The trade deal, they say, would greatly benefit U.S. exporters who send beef, pork, wheat, soybeans, corn and other products to Central America.
But those assurances have not kept the sugar issue out of the presidential campaign unfolding in this corner of the Farm Belt. Many in the beet industry -- a mainstay of northwest Minnesota's economy -- have taken the trade deal as a sign of fading support for sugar protections, and they are fighting back with money and lobbying muscle.
Cane growers in Florida and Louisiana -- two other political battlegrounds -- have joined the chorus.
"It hurts the president," said Hasbargen, a self-described independent who voted for George W. Bush in 2000 but is supporting Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) for president this time around, largely because of sugar.
The administration is not backing away from the treaty. But it does not plan to send it to Congress for ratification before the election. Kerry favors renegotiation but has not said expressly whether he would redo the sugar provisions.
It has been decades since the "farm vote" could swing an election to a Harry S. Truman or a Dwight D. Eisenhower. Vast changes in U.S. agriculture have shrunk the number of full-time commercial farmers from millions to a statistically insignificant few hundred thousand.
But in many parts of the Farm Belt that will be crucial in the election, economic prosperity is still linked to farming, and farm issues still mobilize voters. In a stark demonstration of agriculture's muscle last week, farm-state senators tacked a $2.9 billion disaster relief package for farmers and ranchers onto an unrelated spending bill, overriding objections that the aid violated budget rules.
Minnesota last voted for a Republican for president in 1972. Yet Bush lost Minnesota in 2000 by just two percentage points -- thanks in part to his 15-point margin in the huge 7th Congressional District covering the state's rural northwest quadrant, including the beet-growing country along the Red River. Political analysts say the president must run that strong in the district this year to capture the state's 10 electoral votes.
Strong farm prices are a clear asset for the president right now, as are the conservative leanings of many rural voters on issues such as gun control. But sugar is a major wild card.
"Bush is in trouble in Minnesota," said the 7th District's representative, Collin C. Peterson, a popular conservative Democrat and one of the strongest advocates in Congress for the sugar program. The reasons, he said, are the Iraq war, the budget deficit -- and sugar.
Peterson's district shows why agriculture matters. The district is first in the nation in sugar and turkey production, second in soybeans, third in wheat and fourth in corn. Driving along the two-lane blacktops and gravel section roads, one sees huge wheat combines churning up clouds of dust and miles of ripening soybeans and beets.
Politically, the district displays a distinctly independent streak. Peterson, the Democrat, has won recent elections by 2 to 1 margins, and voters often send Democrats to the state Legislature. Ralph Nader garnered almost 5 percent of the vote in 2000, a sign that prairie populism still flourishes here.