WASHINGTON — The president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association and a fifth-generation Louisiana sugarcane farmer were among the speakers invited to address legislators, Administration officials, and reporters about the upcoming Farm Bill debate.
The Farm Bill summit, organized by Agri-Pulse, was held today at the National Press Club. Galen Lee, an Idaho farmer and president of the trade association representing sugarbeet growers, offered opening remarks at the event and explained that sugar prices are currently lower than when President Carter was in office.
Lee said America's no-cost sugar policy, which offers loans that producers repay with interest, is barely keeping sugar producers afloat in the face of a highly subsidized world market.
"I can think of no other small businesses that must borrow so much money every year, only to run the risk of financial ruin if a seasonal storm strikes or a foreign government manipulates markets," he said. "I don't know of many other occupations where low-cost, world-class producers – as we are in sugar – lose out to less efficient, highly subsidized competitors."
Low prices created by unfair subsidies in the world market are taking a toll on U.S. farmers. Hawaii's last remaining sugar mill closed in December after more than a century of production.
"Their market was destroyed by international cheaters like Mexico, which was found guilty of dumping subsidized sugar into the U.S. market," he told an audience of more than 400.
Hawaii is not alone, Lee said. "We have young beet farmers on the auction block right now for the same reason."
Young sugarcane farmers from Louisiana, like Travis Medine, are also feeling the pressure.
Sugarcane was first planted in what is now downtown New Orleans by Jesuit priests in 1751, and it's been a big part of Louisiana's heritage ever since. Sugar now employs 16,000 Louisianans and contributes $3 billion to the state's economy.
"But our farmers are getting older," he said. "If we want the tradition to continue, we must attract more young people into a business that is facing a future made uncertain by rampant foreign subsidization, flat prices, regulatory hurdles, and expensive inputs."
Capital is among the biggest issues, he said.
"Lenders need confidence to loan young growers like me operating capital, especially in the current downturn we're experiencing," he explained. "And in southern Louisiana, sugar policy is key to lenders' confidence."
Young growers also need fair markets to sell our goods into, he noted. "The U.S. sugar market has been wrecked by Mexico…our government needs to fix the problem with Mexico immediately before more jobs are lost and more young farmers go out of business."
Other notable speakers included the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Agricultural Committees.
Panel discussions focused on budget challenges, risk management, conservation, political perspectives, and bridging the gap between farm and food policy.