The box John Snyder’s mother-in-law brought to his office in Worland, Wyoming had been sitting at her house for decades.
He opened the old carboard top and rifled through farm records dating to 1980-81. And there, amid the stacks of paper, he found a report of the sugarbeet farm’s net income that year. He read it closely and did the math.
“We were actually paid 25 percent more per ton in 1981 than what we are getting paid today,” he says. “It’s quite a change. We’ve had to become much more efficient. We need to produce more per acre. And, so, it’s not the best economics today.”
Snyder, who grew up on a farm but didn’t set out to be a farmer, is struggling with prices that haven’t changed much since the ‘80s while costs for fuel, seed, fertilizer and labor have skyrocketed.
His story is common among sugarbeet farmers across Wyoming and Montana. Mexico’s illegal dumping of highly subsidized sugar in 2012 and 13 hit this region hard. Beet growers here are raising the first crop since then that has the hope of a return to profitability.
Attacks by farm policy opponents during the Farm Bill debate in Washington this summer did little to ease their fears. These anti-farm lobbyists looked to weaken America’s no-cost sugar policy and flood the market with more subsidized foreign sugar.
Luckily, those attacks were rebuffed and both the House and Senate left the sugar policy intact in the bills they passed.
Snyder is one of four farmers the American Sugar Alliance interviewed in Montana and Wyoming as part of a national series.
North of Snyder’s place, Paul Wambeke sits at the kitchen counter with wife Tory and looks at photos of his family – and his late father who farmed into his 90s – as he discusses the importance of sugarbeets to the Big Horn Basin.
“Beets have always paid the way,” he says, “And you know we are sitting here with 2018 expenses now and we are still getting 1985 prices. People are going to go away if there is nothing here.”
On the other side of the mountains in Montana, farmer Shane Strecker has also struggled with low prices and high costs.
“We can’t do anything with our prices,” he says. “Fertilizer companies can raise theirs, chemical companies can raise their prices. We can’t do anything. So, we are at the end of the line.”
For Strecker, whose family history in farming extends back to the Ukraine, the sugar policy in the Farm Bill is make-or-break.
“If we don’t have a strong sugar policy, we’re out of business,” he says.
Ervin Schlemmer, another Montana grower with deep roots in farming and sugarbeets, agrees.
“We can’t survive in this world of sugar without a safety net,” he says. “We have to compete against high subsidies in other countries and we are actually competing against foreign governments is what it amounts to.”
He still loves farming and farms today with his wife Julie and son, Greg. He hopes his grandchildren will one day take over the farm.
“We want this legacy to continue on,” he says.
Watch their stories, and the stories of sugar farmers across America, at facesofsugarpolicy.org.
With British ships blocking Caribbean trade routes, Napoleon Bonaparte found France facing a difficult problem.
Sugar, which had become a staple of high-society diet, was in short supply. When French scientists gave Napoleon sugar made from beets, he directed farmers to plant a massive crop and provided government money to help build processing factories.
The large-scale production invented in France soon flooded Europe with beet sugar, making it finally affordable for everyone.
After Waterloo, trade routes reopened, and beet sugar declined as cane sugar returned to Europe. But the new crop, and the technology used to efficiently turn it into sugar, was out and would create a global commercial enterprise.
Fast-forward to 2018. Farmers in Minnesota and North Dakota – many in the Red River Valley along the border – have become the world’s most efficient sugarbeet producers. And they just planted what they hope will be the best crop ever.
Planted around this time every Spring, sugarbeets have fueled generations of family farms and built the small towns that dot the Valley’s 550-mile path. For Dan Rosenfeldt, sugarbeets offered a path to becoming an independent farmer instead of a farm laborer.
“That was the thing that allowed me to start and really become a farmer on my own,” he said. “It was the stability and the opportunity that sugarbeets gave a person. With very limited acres, limited resources, you could get into the game.”
Rosenfeldt’s story is unusual in the Red River Valley. He didn’t grow up on a farm. His father was a farm laborer, a job he would hold as a young man. He went to college to be a teacher but fell into farming because teaching jobs weren’t available in his home of Moorehead, Minnesota.
He has four children, all of whom have advanced degrees and are not working on the farm, and eight grandchildren. His wife is a teacher and her income helped him grow the farm. He farms with his nephew and brother.
One part of Rosenfeldt’s story is common across the region. He is worried about the future if Congress weakens sugar policy during the current Farm Bill debate.
“This is my life, and I really firmly believe that we can compete anywhere in the world,” he says. “But if we let this industry go, it will be tough to ever get it back again.”
About an hour from Rosenfeldt’s place, farmer Rod Olson kneels in a field of recently-planted sugarbeet seedlings. He admits he spends more time that he should checking on the plants as they grow.
Olson’s story is that of the quintessential American farm boy. He decided against college in the 1980s because the farm crisis threatened to destroy his family farm. He became free labor for his parents for years as the family worked to keep the operation going.
Olson wishes he had gone to college but says he always knew he would farm.
“Well you know I started on a tractor when I was about 8 years old and been in one ever since,” he says. “I knew at an early age this was the occupation I wanted to do.”
It’s been a good occupation for his family and the community of Hallstad. The year he graduated, the high school’s football team went to the state championships. But the community, like many others across the Red River Valley, is in decline. The high school will close after this year and merge with one in a neighboring town.
“There’s just not enough,” he says. “Enrollment is down so far.”
He says Hallstad would struggle to survive without sugarbeets. The community in Caledonia, North Dakota, where he also farms sugarbeets, would face a similar fate.
The talk of removing the no-cost sugar policy from the Farm Bill baffles him as he looks back on his start in farming in the tumultuous times of the 1980s.
“It’s ironic to me that in the early 80s, when the first sugar provision was put in the farm program, the end users asked for it and helped to write it,” he says.
Those same food companies are now bankrolling efforts to gut the program in favor of subsidized imports.
Brian Ryberg’s small community of Buffalo Lake faces challenges similar to those in Olson’s town. Population is declining. Farm kids grow up and move away to the city for school.
Ryberg’s son is going to pharmacy school and probably won’t be interested in farming. Ryberg is hoping one of his daughters might be. Keeping farms alive is critical to rural America, he says.
“If we are successful and we make money we share it with the grocery store in town, we share it with the car dealers and the insurance people,” he says. “We’ve got to make some money on the farm.”
Tim Deal thinks a lot about the broader economic implications of changing America’s no-cost sugar policy. He farms near the Minn-Dak factory in Wahpeton, North Dakota.
“We can continue to grow beets but we can’t compete with Brazil and Thailand and India and all these countries that are subsidizing to no end their sugar industries and creating this dump market,” he says. “And if our customers, the people we sell sugar to, really think they are going to have the infrastructure, the availability of sugar if the sugar industry would go bankrupt in this country, they are going to find out they will be paying a lot more for sugar.”
That’s something he hopes doesn’t happen. He’d like to see his grandchildren farm the land he now farms with his son and grew up farming with his father.
Nate Hultgren, in Raymond, Minnesota, knows a little bit about protecting family farming heritage, too.
His family has farmed the same land for four generations. He lives on the family farm with his family, his brother’s family, and his mom and dad. There’s a child’s drawing of a seed tender that covers the notebook he keeps in his tractor.
Sugarbeets are a way of life, here. The harvest time dominates family schedules with an all-hands-on-deck attituded across the community.
“It’s one of those things that has to be in your blood to do it,” he says. “Because to lay under a beet digger at 2 in the morning and scrape mud … not a lot of people would want to do it unless you were born with it.”
He shares many of the same concerns his fellow farmers have in the Red River Valley. Congress, he says, needs to remember the Farm Bill is about more than farmers.
“I know it says farm on it, but it really should say rural community bill because that’s what it does,” he says. “It is of utmost importance to have sugar in the Farm Bill…because otherwise these communities that rely on sugar for jobs, for tax dollars, whatever it might be, they’re going to go away.”
An Iconic Sign, Union Jobs Connect Baltimore’s Middle Class
Denise Drake grew up one of 11 siblings in Baltimore.
At nights, she’d gaze at the iconic Domino Sugar refinery that has long illuminated the city’s Inner Harbor. But, she never realized just how close her home was to the refinery until she came to work there decades ago.
Today, Drake lives in the Baltimore County neighborhood of Windsor Mills in a home she purchased. She still drives into the city to work the sugar boiler controls inside the refinery not far from where she grew up.
Her home is one of the many ways her job at the refinery has changed her life.
“The benefits helped out with my family a lot,” she says while keeping a watchful eye on the boiler controls. “A lot for me. My children, my grandchildren and my great grandchildren.”
Drake boils liquid sugar in order to crystalize it into granulated sugar. From there, it spins and is dried until it is finally ready to be packaged. She’s a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 392, which represents more than 300 employees at the Baltimore refinery.
Her story is one of three the American Sugar Alliance documented in Maryland as part of its series to bring the faces of U.S. sugar policy to the public and Congress as lawmakers debate the 2018 Farm Bill. The Farm Bill includes America’s no-cost sugar policy, which helps farmers and factory workers compete in a highly subsidized global sugar market.
And it helps Domino Sugar provide steady work in a city where good jobs can be hard to find, says Anthony Richmond.
He got a job at the refinery after working for a company that made paint.
“As a little kid, going down to the harbor with my parents, to a father taking my daughters down there, you can’t miss that big old orange sign,” he says. “You know, I guess I got stagnant at what I was doing. There really was no growth level there. So, I decided, hey, that big Domino Sugar sign outside looks interesting. Let’s take a shot at it. And it worked out for me.”
Today he’s a machine operator. The job is challenging but Richmond is a man who doesn’t mind a challenge.
He has three daughters. One recently got a good job, one graduated college, and another is heading there in the fall. He says he’s satisfied with his life. He’s able to take care of his family and has a job that is challenging and provides him with a long-term future.
“Jobs in general, across the board, are hard to come by,” he says. “Especially jobs where you are making a decent amount of money, great benefits, that have what I call retirement potential.”
It’s that kind of career that first attracted John Godleski to the refinery. He grew up down the street, and the Domino Sugars sign holds a special place in his childhood memories.
He graduated from high school and immediately got a job at the refinery.
Twenty-eight years later, he works as one of the crane operators unloading raw sugar from boats in the harbor. He never thought, as a kid, he would end up operating one of the two cranes.
“I just wanted to work here at Domino Sugar,” he said. “It didn’t really matter what job I had. But as I got more seniority, as the years went on, I kind of liked the operations of the crane so I wanted to give it a shot.”
Godleski has four boys and still lives nearby. The job has provided him a good income and that’s something he hopes Congress will remember.
“These kinds of jobs are very important to Baltimore and middle-income families,” he says. “I recommend keeping it going because you want to keep the middle class the middle class.”
Watch these stories and more at facesofsugarpolicy.org.