Port project riles U.S. farmers The United States and Vietnam have become friendlier over the past few years. As is often the case, the friendship is fostered not just by handshakes and smiles but also by trade deals. One particular deal has raised the ire of U.S. rice farmers who are asking exactly who American diplomats are representing.

Late last August, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency announced that $225,000 of U.S. taxpayersi money would be contributed toward a feasibility study to help Vietnamese rice exports. The current plan is to build a processing plant in the port of Ho Cho Minh City (once Saigon) to help facilitate rice exports.

"We obviously have a problem with this," says Nolen Canon, U.S. Rice Producers Association chairman. "In the grand scheme, it isn't a huge amount of money. But channeling taxpayer money to fund our competition is unacceptable."

Canon's comments are echoed by Jimmy Hoppe, U.S. Rice Council chairman. Hoppe, who grows rice in southwest Louisiana, says from what he has heard on the topic, "We're an industry that's together on this. We need to get the message out that this isn't the way for our State Department to do business."

Canon, who farms rice outside Tunica, Miss., says the organization he represents isn't against normalizing relations with Vietnam. However, he says, it shouldnit be forgotten that "Vietnam subsidizes rice production to a large degree. I don't think it's in the best interest of the United States to subsidize Vietnam's rice further."

Canon hopes a pending trade agreement between the two nations (signed last July and currently being considered for ratification) won't be based on "someone thinking a few more U.S. rice farmers need to be broken. In essence, that's what they're doing with this $225,000. There seems to a be a pattern at the State Department of treating U.S. agriculture as insignificant.

"I wish that instead of thinking of U.S. farmers as secondary to the nation's security, we'd be elevated to our rightful place. If our country ever runs out of food, it'll become obvious what's important."

U.S. diplomats counter with this argument: If the study finds the project feasible, the United States could sell some $22 million worth of goods and services to build the facility. For their money, Vietnam - which is the world's second-largest rice exporter at 4.5 million tons in 1999 - would export more rice. The United States would likely be a target of those exports.

Whatis happened to the project over the last few months?

"I don't know if anything is moving forward on this," says Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark. "We weren't aware of this at all until the first of December. The information we had was thin - it took us a while to track down the particulars. At that time, we began to try and stop the money from being spent.

"If someone wants to help the Vietnamese out privately, or if a non-profit organization wants to help, that's fine," says Berry. "But the U.S. taxpayer's dollars shouldn't be spent in this way. This country has done a lot to help Vietnam, and we should continue to help.

"But I don't think this project is an appropriate use of taxpayers' dollars. That's certainly true when the idea is to increase Vietnamese exports into the same market we compete in."

Berry points out that for the most part U.S. rice farmers compete with a much different product than the Vietnamese. U.S. rice is generally better quality, "although there is some overlapping in competition."

Berry says it's been very difficult getting any information on where the project stands. I have to say that I don't think we'll be able to stop it. Once money is appropriated to the agencies, itis difficult to control how itis spent. Congress has some control over it, but the control certainly isn't absolute"

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