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It’s a great time to be in business in America, right?
The economy is humming, with record highs in the stock market, unemployment at a 17 year low, wages rising, and Amazon promising to bring 50,000 new jobs to a lucky city. What’s not to love?
If you’re a farmer, like we are, the outlook is horrible. Farm incomes are down, commodity prices are low, and the weather is increasingly unpredictable.
We grow sugar, where prices are lower today than they were in 1980. Unfortunately for beet and cane farmers, the cost of fuel, seed, fertilizer, and other inputs has risen dramatically during that time, creating an economic squeeze.
We’ve also faced hurricanes, freezes, diseases, pests, and a host of other challenges – and that’s just here at home. Subsidized foreign sugar has been the biggest industry and job killer of all.
Sounds extreme? Well, when Mexico broke U.S. trade law a few years ago and flooded the U.S. market with subsidized sugar, it drove Hawaii’s century-old sugarcane industry out of business. We think we have that fixed, but every grower across the country is still struggling with the aftereffects.
Go farther south to Brazil and billions in government subsidies have helped the “OPEC of sugar” gain a stranglehold on the global sugar market. In fact, Brazil controls 50 percent of exports and is able to manipulate prices worldwide, applying even more pressure to U.S. farmers.
A hard lesson learned is that when a sugarcane farm, mill, or refinery closes, it never reopens – as evidenced by the closure of 54 sugar factories and the loss of 100,000 jobs since 1985.
When we close a plant, we essentially hand over that part of our domestic market to subsidized imports. And that puts Americans out of work.
But the story isn’t all doom-and-gloom. We’re looking to the future, and we’ve got a domestic sugar policy that gives us a fighting chance.
This policy has enabled us to invest in research to improve yields and mill processing efficiencies. Many of us have cooperative ownership in local factories and some have also vertically integrated by jointly co-owning refineries in order to avoid further closures.
We make these investments and push through the hard times because we love sugar, because sugar is woven into our culture and because we can’t grow much else. It provides 142,000 jobs across the nation and pumps more than $20 billion into the economy.
It’s how we’ve become a global leader in efficiency and technology. We’ll go head-to-head with any farmer in the world because we know that our American colleagues will come out on top. But, it doesn’t come without some risk and commitment.
Sugar farmers take out huge operating loans each year, and frankly, we wouldn’t get a dime unless our bankers have the certainty of a strong no-cost sugar policy.
It’s why we need to maintain a strong sugar program in the upcoming farm bill. It’s not about subsidy checks, because we don’t receive any. It’s about our survival.
We’re proud to continue a way of life in America that dates back to 1751, when sugarcane was first planted in Louisiana. We’ve literally built our lives around providing Americans with a reliable and safe supply of an important product.
Despite our work, there are those who want to weaken farmers’ risk management tools and drive our prices even lower. If these agricultural opponents are successful, we’ll lose more than just a few farms. Communities will lose their biggest economic driver. And thousands of hardworking Americans will be sent to the unemployment line.
The situation leaves us with an important question: Will our children and grandchildren be able to follow our lead? Or will our family’s sugar-growing heritage stop with this generation?
The decisions that Congress makes on sugar policy in the coming weeks and months will answer those questions, and, in turn, determine our fate.
We need lawmakers continue to support a strong sugar policy. Communities, and families like ours, are counting on them.
Please, Congress, don’t cut us out of the farm bill.
Catherine LaCour is a sugarcane grower from Pointe Coupee, La. Joel Gasper is a sugarbeet grower from Crookston, Minn.
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March 12, 2018 at 11:03AM