I dont know much about cast-iron backs, but I do know something about gardening–and the idea of having a cast-iron back to go with it sounds awfully appealing.

When I was a kid, we used to garden a lot on our farm. It wasnt a weekend hobby. It was done to put food on the table.

Today, we put a lot more food on the table, but we dont do as much serious gardening. This paradox is made possible by trade–a very personal version of the issue Congress is deliberating right now. The Senate approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) last week, and the full House of Representatives is expected to vote soon.

CAFTA is good for the United States because free trade is good for everyone. Im reminded of that fact every time I think about my familys old garden.

Working in it was back-breaking labor. We all understood why we did it, so we didnt complain. But neither was there any grumbling when we were able to abandon the garden and buy more of our food at the grocery store.

What happened was that we altered the economic equation. Our familys economy, once based on a standard of at least partial self-sufficiency, became more integrated with the wider world. We worked less on gardening and more on farming. We traded the bounty of our harvest for everything else we needed–including some of the food we once grew in our garden.

Were less self-sufficient today, but were also more prosperous.

CAFTA operates on the same principle. By removing artificial barriers to trade, we promote the economic integration that helps Americans everywhere–from its biggest cities to its smallest farming communities–save money on consumer items and sell more of their own products abroad.

CAFTA isnt the biggest trade deal the world has ever seen. The CAFTA nations are small–their populations are comparable to individual states. Costa Rica, for example, is home to about 4 million people, making it a little bit bigger than Iowa.

I believe rejecting this chance to increase our trade with the CAFTA countries would be a big mistake. The same logic would have individual states erecting trade barriers with their neighbors. Should we in Illinois stop trading with Iowa because the cost of labor in Iowa is slightly cheaper? Of course not–thats absurd.

There may be a big difference between Hawkeyes and Guatemalans, but theres no doubt that people in Illinois benefit when we trade with people who live elsewhere.

CAFTA will deliver a positive benefit, especially for Illinois farmers. Our state is the nations second largest exporter of soybeans–but in the CAFTA countries, our soybeans face tariffs as high as 20 percent. Under CAFTA, these barriers will fall immediately.

A similar analysis is possible with our other commodities. Were the #2 exporter of feed grains, but our feed grains face tariffs of up to 35 percent in the CAFTA countries. Hog production is our states third leading source of farm cash receipts, but our pork confronts tariffs as high as 47 percent.

If these obstacles dont come down, Illinois farmers will lose cash. According to an American Farm Bureau Federation report, Illinois exports to the CAFTA nations in 2024 will be nearly $55 million less if we dont have a free-trade deal with them. Meat and soybean producers will suffer the worst shortfalls.

Granted, $55 million may not be a make-or-break figure in the scheme of my states economic future. But, if our attitude is to turn down attractive opportunities, everybody may need to consider going back to gardening.

And that means we may need to import some cast-iron backs. Unless theyre made in Iowa.

John Reifsteck, a corn and soybean farmer in western Champaign County Illinois, is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology.