Jon Tester is a farmer who’s running against Montana Sen. Conrad Burns in the Nov. 7 election. Tester may be one of the few candidates who took six days off from campaigning in September to harvest grain.

If he wins, he will be one of the few in Congress who farm for a living. (Three senators — Larry Craig, R-Idaho; Charles Grassley, R-Iowa; and Ken Salazar, D-Colo. — and a handful of House members list themselves as farmers or ranchers. Burns is a broadcaster.)

With so few farmers seeking office on a national level, and it not being a year divided by four, you might be asking what’s at stake for agriculture in this election? Well, in a word, plenty.

Tester obviously relishes his role as a political outsider taking on a three-term incumbent. “I’m a farmer, not a politician,” he said in a U.S. News article. “I’m running to get honest representation back in Washington, D.C.”

No one doubts Tester will continue to seek some of the same objectives if Burns is defeated. Burns and North Dakota’s Kent Conrad have been fighting with Republican congressional leaders and the Bush administration, trying to pass a disaster assistance bill.

Burns says commodity programs should be changed in the next farm bill to ensure that all program crops benefit. Wheat and barley producers, he says, are at a disadvantage now because they only receive direct payments.

In Tennessee, Congressman Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis and former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, both city boys, are battling over the Senate seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist. Both have included farmers and their families in their campaign advertising.

But neither race will turn on whether the majority of the voters think the candidates can bring home more disaster aid or commodity program payments for farmers.

Something more fundamental is at stake, and it doesn’t matter if you think President Bush was wrong to invade Iraq or that Democrats are soft on terrorism. On Nov. 7, we must elect candidates who can put aside partisan differences and find a way to end the conflict in Iraq with the least damage possible to the United States.

Media outlets and environmental groups complain about farm program spending. But the fact is the U.S. government spends more in two or three days in Iraq than it spends on cotton farmers in two or three years. The money is a pittance compared to the toll on U.S. soldiers and their families.

The United States is a strong nation, but it faces many challenges, including preserving a productive agriculture sector. Can we afford to continue spending so much of our wealth on a region that shows little sign of helping itself or wanting our help?

Note: Some claim that if Democrats take control of the House or Senate, Congress will write a significantly different farm bill in 2007. Those who say that don’t know much about the House and Senate agriculture committees or farm organization lobbyists.

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