KATHY BARKS HOFFMAN AP Political Writer LANSING, Mich.
Presidential candidate John McCain was heading into the heart of Michigan sugar beet country Tuesday to visit a solar research center near Bay City. But if he stopped to talk to any sugar beet farmers, he likely wouldn't get a very warm welcome. The GOP senator is a longtime critic of tariffs on imported sugar. He says they force consumers to pay more for products containing sugar. During an interview that aired on CBS' "60 Minutes" program Sunday, McCain was asked what he would cut in the federal budget. He replied that, among other items, "I would stop these protectionist tariffs. I would stop subsidizing sugar." But Ray VanDrissche of the growerowned Michigan Sugar Co. In Bay City said the tariffs are needed to keep other countries from dumping sugar here and wiping out domestic sugar growers. Government statistics show sugar beets accounted for about $111 million of Michigan's $4.2 billion agriculture industry in 2006-07, the most recent year available. VanDrissche said 1,100 farm families in Michigan grow sugar beets in a 21-county crescent that runs from Michigan's Thumb to areas west and north of Bay City. Based on the value of production, Michigan is the nation's fourthlargest producer of sugar beets, with about 145,000 acres planted this year. To VanDrissche, McCain's opposition to the sugar tariff is one reason that many of the state's sugar beet growers back Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. McCain also is opposed to ethanol subsidies and the $300 billion federal farm bill, which he called "bloated" this summer. "Most of agriculture would say that McCain is not necessarily very supportive of agriculture. And it's obvious from his comments the other night that he's not supportive of the sugar industry," VanDrissche told The Associated Press. A message seeking comment was left Tuesday with the McCain campaign. McCain's opposition to sugar tariffs has been a sore subject with the sugar industry. Sugar beets are a major commodity in Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho and Michigan, and also are grown in California, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Oregon and Washington state. Sugar cane is grown in Florida, Louisiana, Hawaii and Texas. Michigan Sugar Co. Produces Pioneer Sugar and Big Chief Sugar, and VanDrissche said the sugar beet industry pumps $350 million directly into the state economy. The state Department of Agriculture also has been examining sugar beets as a possible source of ethanol. The Arizona senator has been heavily courting Michigan, since a win here could help propel him to the White House this fall. On Tuesday, he planned to visit Dow Corning Corp.'s Solar Module and Assembly Application Center to talk about alternative energy. Democrats contend McCain has consistently opposed tax incentives for renewable energy, but McCain says he favors extend existing credits for "low carbon" renewable energy sources such as hydroelectric dams and wind and solar power.