Montana Governor, Lawmakers Recognize State’s Sugar Farmers

Sugarbeet farmers in Montana ended January on a high note with the publication of four op-eds from key leaders in the Sidney Herald.

Democratic Governor Steve Bullock,; U.S. Senators Steve Daines (R) and Jon Tester (D); and Congressman Greg Gianforte (R), the state’s top elected officials, thanked Montana’s beet farmers for being a backbone of the state’s economy.

Governor Bullock and Senator Daines touched on similar themes, including the importance of sugarbeets to the state.  Meanwhile, Senator Tester and Representative Gianforte focused on the Farm Bill and the importance of maintaining a strong sugar policy for the state’s growers.

“Montana continues to produce high-grade sugarbeets, and we can all be proud of a harvest that again contributed nearly $100 million to the state’s economy,” the Governor wrote.

Senator Daines agreed, noting, “You certainly cannot miss the importance of sugarbeets to our economy. Sugarbeets support over 4,000 Montana jobs and contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to our state’s economy.”

Both officials applauded farmers for their dedication despite the economic squeeze created by continued low commodity prices.  This perseverance, they explained, helped sustain the ag industry’s place as the state’s primary economic driver.

The articles were well received by Kjeld Jonsson, a farmer and president of the Sidney-based Montana-Dakota Beet Growers Association.

“Overall, 2017 was a good harvest,” he said. “It’s gratifying that sugarbeet farming can help bolster the state’s economy so much.”

Association Vice President Ryan Haidle, who also farms sugarbeets, was likewise proud of the state’s harvest and the unexpected recognition.

Big sugarbeet harvests like this don’t come around very often. We frankly need more of them, especially since prices never recovered after Mexico illegally dumped its subsidized sugar into the U.S. market several years ago,” Haidle explained. “It’s good to know that in Montana, farmers have the political support we need from our elected leaders.”

That kind of support will be invaluable as Congress rewrites the Farm Bill.  Senator Daines, who sits on the Agriculture Committee, explained what’s at stake during the upcoming debate.

“Montana sugar farmers can compete with anyone, but some foreign governments heavily subsidize sugar production,” he wrote. “This distorts world markets and puts Montana and U.S. producers at a disadvantage. I will continue fighting to protect the critical sugar program in the Farm Bill, ensure our trade agreements are enforced and ensure that Montana sugar farmers are able to compete on a level-playing field.”

He won’t be alone in fighting for America’s sugar producers on Capitol Hill.

“Congress needs to produce a Farm Bill that works for Montana’s number one industry: agriculture,” explained Senator Tester. “The sugar program works for Montana farmers, and we need to continue to improve it in order for our state to thrive.”

He continued, “Sugarbeet growers work hard. I will honor that hard work by continuing to bring my Montana farmer’s perspective to the U.S. Senate.”

Congressman Gianforte will take up the same fight on behalf of sugar farmers in the House.  And he knows that when he’s fighting for U.S. sugar policy he’s helping the whole state.

“The sugar industry is a vital part of our economy. I salute all the hard-working Montanans who keep it ticking,” he wrote.  “From the producers to the plant workers, from the folks in the parts department to those who serve a hot meal to a hungry farmhand, thank you for what you do. It’s because of you we can enjoy our very special Montana way of life.”

‘Sugar Farmer Bankruptcy Bill’ Introduced to Outsource U.S. Sugar Production

Amendments designed to gut no-cost U.S. sugar policy were rejected three times on the Senate floor, two times on the House floor, and twice at the Committee level during the 2014 Farm Bill debate.  Now, backers of those defeated amendments are dusting them off for another run.

They’ve rebranded it the “Sugar Policy Modernization Act,” even though it recycles much of the failed legislative language used in the past and is designed to rollback policy updates made by lawmakers in 2008.  Sugar farmers are taking exception to the proposed bill and its name.

“A better name would be the ‘Sugar Farmer Bankruptcy Bill’ because that’s exactly what it’s designed to do,” explained Galen Lee, president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association.  “Big candy companies have lobbied for decades to outsource production to foreign countries with high subsidies and low labor and environmental standards.”

Unlike foreign sugar industries, U.S. producers do not receive subsidy checks, said Lee, who is a sugar farmer from Idaho.  Instead, producers get loans to help cash-flow operations while sugar is stored for customers.  Because loans are repaid with interest, sugar policy has operated without taxpayer cost in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Sugar producers would lose access to nonrecourse loans under the proposal by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Patrick Toomey (R-PA) and Reps. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and Danny Davis (D-IL).  The bill would also force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to maintain an oversupplied sugar market and keep prices depressed with imports.

Travis Medine, a fifth-generation Louisiana sugarcane grower, is worried the bill would be crippling to current growers and would keep future generations off the farm.

“This is serious business, and our livelihoods hang in the balance of the debate,” he said.  “We literally have thousands of family farms and manufacturing jobs on the line.  Without sugar, communities all across Southern Louisiana would suffer.”

Of course, Congress has had this same debate on several occasions in the past, and in the end, has always sided with American farmers who bolster the country’s food security.

“We’re hopeful that this bill will end up just like all the others designed to enrich candy companies at the expense of America’s family farmers,” Lee concluded. “We provide this country with an affordable domestic supply of an essential ingredient, and we help generate 142,000 jobs at no cost to taxpayers.  Most lawmakers don’t want to upend that success story.”