Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Western farmers will watch if Bush follows through on promises

It was a more reserved, less smug president that addressed the Republicans and Democrats Tuesday night in Washington, D.C. during his State of the Union address.

George W. Bush pleaded for support of his plan to add additional troops in Iraq, and emphasized the role that America needs to serve in international affairs while still protecting itself at home against terrorism.

The tone was different than speeches made by the president during the last few years: there wasn’t the air of defiance against critics, the bragging of success, the vows to defeat the axis of evil or unflinching cheerleading by his fellow Republicans.

While there were plenty of standing ovations and considerable applause, the support didn’t break down along the tradition lines of the president’s own party supporting all he said. This was especially clear on issues such as when he stressed the need for a temporary workers program, when he noted that there’s a serious problem of global climate change, and when he discussed the plan to send more troops to Iraq.

While there was the expected harsh words from Democrats later criticizing Bush’s foreign policy and failed objectives on the domestic agenda from his years thus far as president, there still appeared to be some acknowledgement that there needs to be change and cooperation to get things done — and cautious commitment made to work with the president if he indeed is serious on dealing with health, education, immigration and energy issues in the next two years.

Bush sadly ignored the Farm Bill, international trade and those areas impacted by weather disasters as priorities in his speech at a time when they deserved attention.

What can the West’s farmers and ranchers expect for help from Bush’s speech and the direction he wants to influence the House and Senate?

There is hope that something will be done about immigration issues and the challenge to have the workforce that segments of the agricultural community need so much.

Bush brought up that border patrols will not do enough to secure America’s border, but that a temporary worker program is needed. “We should establish a legal and orderly path for foreign workers to enter our country to work on a temporary basis. As a result, they won’t have to try to sneak in — and that will leave border agents free to chase down drug smugglers, and criminals, and terrorists.

“We will enforce our immigration laws at the worksite, and give employers the tools to verify the legal status of their workers — so there is no excuse left for violating the law,” Bush said. And then he touched on what many wanted to hear.

“And we need to resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country — without animosity and without amnesty.”

It was obvious not everyone in his own party or in the Democratic party supported him as he announced this. The media dutifully recorded politicians that did not applaud or stand up in support. Bush expected and acknowledged this in his speech.

“Convictions run deep in this Capitol when it comes to immigration. Let us have a serious, civil, and conclusive debate — so that you can pass, and I can sign, comprehensive immigration reform into law.”

Westerners will applaud Washington’s politicians finally confronting the immigration issue head on, resolving the problems that exist: there is a need for a legal work force, but most importantly, there needs to be a labor force in place when and where it’s needed. Too many commodities were hurt this year when there was a worker shortage at crucial harvest times. Fruit and vegetable growers were particularly vulnerable and frustrated.

An area where Bush did find more support on from the politicians he courted during his speech was when he urged his country to be less dependent on foreign oil supplies.

This is not a new direction, but it renewed hope that perhaps something will finally be done about it, and there was hope that agriculture can provide the alternative energy sources needed.

“It is in our vital interest to diversify America’s energy supply — and the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power — by even greater use of clean coal technology ... solar and wind energy ... and clean, safe nuclear power. We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol — using everything from wood chips, to grasses, to agricultural wastes,” Bush said.

More specifically, Bush challenged everyone: “Let us build on the work we have done and reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years — thereby cutting our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East.

“To reach this goal, we must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory Fuels Standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 — this is nearly five times the current target. At the same time, we need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks — and conserve up to eight and a half billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017.”

Education, healthcare and the economy were other domestic issues on Bush’s agenda that deserved and received attention in his speech.

But for agricultural community in the West, if the farmers can’t find the workers when they need them, or afford their fuel for their machinery, the transportation costs to get to market, and the heat for their business operations or even their homes, it’s tough to think about some of the other domestic issues.

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