Like sugar cane in the late fall, the fate of U.S. farmers facing the threat of increased sugar imports is blowing in the wind in Washington.
The 2018 Farm Bill became a political football once again Friday when the House voted it down, 198-213. The defeat, orchestrated by the Republican Freedom Caucus when it didn’t get its way, was felt all the way to the heart of the sugar cane industry in Louisiana.
New Iberian Jim Simon, general manager of the American Sugar Cane League, said domestic sugar cane and sugar beet growers remain as united in their stand for the 2018 Farm Bill as they are disappointed in the final passage vote Friday (May 18).
By Don Shoopman, Daily Iberian
"For us, the (Farm Bill’s) sugar policy has provisions that allow us to compete on a level playing field with sugar cane and sugar beet farmers around the world,” Simon said Tuesday afternoon as he was driving to a meeting.
"We won’t be overrun by foreign cane farmers but we’ll be overrun by foreign governments,” he said.
In other words, American sugar cane and sugar beet farmers, who are among the most efficient in the world, can and would compete, gladly, against foreign producers if their governments didn’t intervene in their markets, i.e., they can hold their own against foreign farmers but not against deep-pocketed foreign treasuries.
As Simon has noted, American sugar farmers derive all of their revenue from the marketplace. There are no government checks, payments or revenue insurance products to manage market risk.
The 2014 Farm Bill expires this year. Negotiations over the bill four years ago were the most contentious in recent history.
If a new bill isn’t enacted into law, there will be an extension of the old farm policy.
However, the 2018 Farm Bill isn’t dead, Simon said.
"The House leader (Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis.) intends to bring the bill back up for another vote,” Simon said, adding that vote could come as soon as the first few weeks in June.
House leaders will do what they can to appease the Republican Freedom Caucus, he said, as well as drum up votes from the other side of the aisle. That it is an election year causes even more issues.
Ronnie Anderson, Louisiana Farm Bureau president, said, "We still have a chance to get this bill through this year, which will help Louisiana farmers and ranchers by giving them certainty to government policy. That allows them to secure farm loans, as well as having some security going forward.”
What happened on the last day of the work week last week? House Democrats unanimously voted against the 2018 Farm Bill over nutrition supplement funding, Simon said, as did the Republican Freedom Caucus, which balked over Ryan’s refusal to vote on an immigration bill.
Rep. Dr. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, voiced his displeasure at the results and said, "Today a small group of Republicans joined Democrats to block the best chance we had to institute work requirements for food stamps so that people can lift themselves out of poverty and enter the workforce. I know that Democrats have vowed to block bills like this that President (Donald) Trump supports, but Republicans should be working together instead of holding each other hostage over unrelated issues.
"This was a good Farm Bill that implements work requirements for SNAP and provided the policies our farmers rely on for planning so that they can keep feeding this country,” Abraham said. "Those who voted "no” turned their backs on President Trump and the American farmer. They need to get on board so we can pass this bill that is critical to the success of American agriculture.”
Maintaining a strong sugar policy in the bill is essential, supporters say. They point out for the past five years refined sugar prices have been depressed as Mexico dumped subsidized sugar into the U.S. market.
Mexico’s was found guilty of violating U.S. trade law. Still, the dumping cost U.S. producers more than $4 billion in lost revenues and many workers their jobs, according to a sugar beet grower in Montana.
Friday’s setback was preceded by an encouraging victory a day earlier when the House defeated an amendment to the 2018 Farm Bill. The amendment, which would reduce sugar prices by opening up the market to even more sugar imports, was bi-partisan but so was the vote, 137-278, a landslide 141-vote margin.
The amendment was enough to sink the entire farm bill, Simon said.
"Our opponents always try to undo sugar policy. They think sourcing their sugar from offshore they can get cheaper supplies. So they get Congressman Virginia Foxx to offer an amendment to dismantle the sugar policy. She’s a formidable opponent to the sugar policy,” Simon said about the Republican from North Carolina.
Simon and others praised the Congressional delegation from Louisiana for its efforts to stop the amendment.
"It was a significant statement by Congress in support of sugar cane and sugar beet farmers across the United States, particularly to Louisiana’s 220-year-old sugar cane industry,” Simon said.
On Friday, before the final vote on the 2018 Farm Bill, Charles Schudmak, president of the American Sugar Cane League, said, "The so-called Sugar Policy Modernization Act, also known in Louisiana as the Sugar Farmer Bankruptcy Bill, was defeated in the House of Representative yesterday by a wide 141-vote margin. The entire Louisiana delegation worked very hard getting the message out to their colleagues that this farm bill amendment was extremely detrimental to Louisiana’s sugar cane industry and to all the nation’s sugar producers.
Reps. Clay Higgins and Garret Graves spoke eloquently in defense of our farmers during the debate while Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond and Ag Committee member Ralph Abraham worked hard to ensure the majority of both parties opposed the Foxx amendment that would have devastated the industry.
"The vote reflects years of diligent effort from our sugar cane farmers to educate Congress about sugar policy, which operates at no cost to the public. We teamed with our counterparts in Florida, Texas and throughout the sugar beet growing regions to present one message to our elected policy makers.
The vote also reflects the outstanding efforts from others within our farm bill coalition who understand the attacks on the no-cost safety net for sugar producers are attempts to drive a wedge between our nation’s farmers as a prelude to attacks on other farmers.”