When Bobby Sparks looks out across his sugarcane fields and past the Rio Grande River, he can see Mexico.
Sparks, a second-generation south Texas farmer, is literally on the front lines of the global sugar trade. So, when Mexico was found guilty of breaking U.S. trade law and dumping mountains of subsidized sugar onto the U.S. market, it felt a little more personal to Sparks.
Fair trade is among the reasons he’s calling on Congress to back the no-cost sugar policy in the 2018 Farm Bill.
“We just need Congress to be on our side,” he says. “Sometimes they look at other nations and what’s going on with them and, of course, we need to provide trade with other countries, but we just want them to remember us when it comes to the sugar industry.”
Sparks’ story is one of three the American Sugar Alliance documented in south Texas to kick off a new series meant to show lawmakers what’s at stake as they debate the future of sugar.
The series will also feature the stories of farmers and workers in Louisiana, California, Michigan, Florida, Colorado, New York, Minnesota, Maryland, Idaho, and Nebraska, among other places. Those stories will live on a new campaign website, facesofsugarpolicy.org.
The series aims to bring the face of sugar production to Capitol Hill with a simple message: “Don’t cut my family out of the Farm Bill.”
Critics of American agriculture are already maneuvering to jettison the sugar policy from the Farm Bill and leave cane and beet farmers to fend for themselves in the world’s most subsidized and volatile market. The U.S. policy historically costs taxpayers nothing while providing access to loans for producers and setting import levels, among other aspects.
American farmers are among the world’s most efficient. But some communities have seen operations close in the face of competition from subsidized growers in other countries. In fact, the last sugar mill closed in Hawaii in 2016 after providing generations of good jobs.
In south Texas, hundreds of people work at the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers mill. Sugarcane means livelihoods for family farms across the valley and pumps money back into the local economy.
“Oh, it’s been huge,” Sparks says, who estimates that at least 500 locals have jobs because of sugar. “There’s truck drivers and there’s harvester drivers and there’s people that work in the mill. It just provides a lot of jobs to the valley.”
Like most in the Rio Grande Valley, Sparks runs a family operation. He farmed with his father and now farms with his son. He has a grandson he hopes might go into the business. He’s optimistic about the future even with all of the challenges in sugar.
“We hope it stays here,” he says. “We really need sugar. Who can see into the future, but we hope it remains and stays here for a long time.”
If you work on Capitol Hill, chances are good you’ve run into a sugar farmer this week. After all, there are dozens of them in town meeting with hundreds of offices.
But it’s not just farmers who are spreading the message, “Don’t cut my family out of the Farm Bill.” Union workers were in town a week earlier making the rounds.
“Meeting the different representatives and being able to talk to them and understand their point of view and explaining why you’re fighting for something is important,” said William Bland, a sugar worker from Florida and member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Union (IAM).
IAM is among the many organizations pushing for a strong sugar policy and fighting attempts to weaken it in the upcoming Farm Bill.
Farm policy opponents are currently lobbying to outsource U.S. sugar production and good-paying U.S. jobs to heavily subsidized foreign industries that are known to have poor environmental and labor standards.
Mark Thompson was one of the IAM Florida Sugar Workers members who made the trip to D.C. to ask lawmakers to oppose this outsourcing scheme.
“Walking the extra mile to protect our jobs is what we’re doing,” he said. “You should never be afraid to speak about something that’s important to you.”
Their trip came at an important time. Not only is Congress debating the Farm Bill, but America’s foreign competitors are busy manipulating the market in hopes of getting a leg up.
India, the world’s second biggest sugar producer, just announced a doubling of sugar import duties to protect its domestic industry, bringing the total tax to 100%. And Pakistan increased subsidies to increase exports.
All told, more than 100 countries subsidize sugar production around the world. America’s sugar policy, which costs taxpayers $0 because it is based on loans repaid with interest instead of government checks, is all U.S. producers have to counter these foreign subsidies.
IAM Florida Sugar Workers member Cornelius Fowler knows what is at stake if subsidized foreign sugar floods the market.
If there’s no sugar policy, we have “no land, no future, no job, no home,” Fowler concluded.
Sugar farmers from across the country descended today on Capitol Hill for two weeks of meetings with lawmakers. And their message is crystal clear: “Don’t cut my family out of the Farm Bill.”
House and Senate Agriculture Committee leadership took time out of their busy schedules to address the annual meeting of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association in D.C. recently – a testament to the importance of the sugar industry to our nation’s agricultural economy.
ASA released an infographic noting that sugar producers see just 2 cents from a $7.99 heart-shaped box of chocolates.