A three part series on the 2017 sugar harvest

Crop Insurance Today(National Crop Insurance Services - October 23, 2017)

Part 1 - Florida Sugarcane Farmers Hopeful After Irma

Hurricane Irma may ultimately be blamed for $100 billion in damage across Florida, making it one of the costliest storms in U.S. history.

Florida Sugar CaneIrma’s 100 mile-an-hour winds whipped along the west coast of Florida, destroying homes and businesses and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power and water. It then tracked north and produced flooding rain in Georgia and the Carolinas.

Sugarcane farmers in Florida braced for the worst as the storm flooded fields and bent stalks that were only weeks from harvest.

In Belle Glade, farmer Dennis Wedgworth, like many others in the storm-battered community, has surveyed his cane crop as best he can. Wedgworth Farms produces mostly cane, though he rotates with rice and leases land to vegetable growers for corn and lettuce.

He had harvested about a third of his rice crop before the storm. Since Irma, rice yields have been down by about half.

The Wedgworth family has farmed in Florida since 1932. His father started growing cane in the early 1960s after volatility in the vegetable market pushed him to find something more stable.

Wedgworth took over management of the farm about 15 years ago and he’s seen big storms before. Most notably, Hurricane Wilma left destruction across the cane farming community.

But the last dozen or so years have been quiet without major storms. Last year’s sugarcane harvest was good and Wedgworth was expecting another good yield this year.

Harvest begins Oct. 24.

“We are cautiously optimistic that the damage we received is not going to be as much as we originally anticipated,” he says. “But we won’t know until we start cutting cane.”

Of special concern is the seed cane. That’s the full stalks of cane farmers plant, which sprouts to grow future crops.

The storm’s winds lodged, or laid down, cane stalks, adding cost to this year’s harvest and possibly damaging seed cane and resulting yields for years to come.

In fact, Wedgworth and others in the region will need to harvest seed cane by hand, which means more labor will be needed at a time when workers are scarce.

Storms like Irma, and the added costs they bring, are just some of the many risks in producing sugar.

The global sugar market is considered the world’s most volatile because of the high level of foreign subsidization. Brazil, for example, doles out more than $2.5 billion in sugar subsidies a year and now controls nearly half of the entire export market.

Farmers like Wedgworth have little protection from foreign market manipulation beyond no-cost sugar policy.

And that policy’s continuation, he says, will be essential to Florida cane farmers rebounding from this year’s hurricane season, as well as his sugarbeet brethren in the Midwest, who are dealing with challenges of their own.

“The policy works,” he says. “And if it’s run properly there is no cost to the taxpayer and consumers get a great deal.”

That’s something he’s hoping Congress will remember as it debates the 2018 Farm Bill.

Part 2 - Minnesota Sugarbeet Farmers Race Against Winter

SugarbeetLike other farmers in Minnesota, Brian Ryberg is anxious to complete the full harvest season.

The area has had heavy rain this fall, including a recent deluge of 7 inches.

The rain has put Ryberg about 2 weeks behind on the farm he operates with his wife and two employees.

“Harvest is kind of the heyday of the year for us,” he says. “Everybody is always excited to get to harvest to see how the crops did this year. You know the hours are going to be there and our hired guys, they hang in there like troopers, and their families know that they are not going to see them very much. But everybody is happy to do their part crop to get the crop in.”

The deal, in Minnesota, includes working 12 to 16 hours shifts for weeks on end, staggered around the clock to give everyone access to the factory.

This year, Ryberg’s farm has the 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. sugarbeet harvest slot.

He also grows corn and soybeans, and the early part of the day will be spent harvesting those crops.

It can go on like this for 6 weeks.

The other part of the deal in Minnesota, and other northern climates, is a delicate dance with winter. Sugarbeets grow larger, and have more sugar output, the longer they stay in the ground.

But freezing temperatures can be disastrous for the beets, so Ryberg and others start the full harvest, which is a 24-7 operation, around the first week of October and try to finish by Oct. 25.

He’s hoping for a mild November, similar to ones in recent years, to give him time to make up ground lost by the recent rains. But in Minnesota, there are no guarantees when it comes to winter.

When Ryberg started harvesting sugarbeets in high school, he used a four-row machine that could handle 300 acres at a time. Now he runs a GPS-guided 12-row harvester that can pull beets from 1,200 acres in the same amount of time.

“Everything has gotten bigger and faster,” he says.

And more expensive, which makes today’s low and stagnant sugar prices all the more challenging.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), wholesale sugar prices have hovered below 30 cents per pound for most of the past year – right around the same price producers saw in the 1980s.

In addition to keeping a watchful eye on the markets, Ryberg and his colleagues will be watching something else closely this fall: The debate over the 2018 Farm Bill.

The bill outlines America’s no-cost sugar policy, which is based on loans that producers repay with interest.

While the policy has historically cost taxpayers nothing, it has been essential to helping sugar producers with inventory and to cash-flow operations as they market their product.

Ryberg, a father of six, will be spending the next few weeks working through the middle of the night to harvest his sugarbeets. He hopes his hard work will pay off and that lawmakers will appreciate the good value U.S. policy has provided to consumers.

“I hope they educate themselves on our cost of production and the current price environment,” he says. “The sugar cooperative my farm belongs to is one of the lowest cost producers in the world, and it’s still a challenge right now.”

He also hopes Congress will realize sugarbeet farmers must compete against highly-subsidized foreign industries that are backed by billions in government subsidies.

Part 3 - Louisiana Harvest Off to a Dry Start

Louisiana Cane Sugar HarvestTravis Medine has been farming sugarcane for 14 years in Port Allen, Louisiana, outside of Baton Rouge.

Harvest time is always an adventure with Louisiana’s wet weather and often muddy soil. Four inches of rain in a single event during the harvest period is not uncommon and rainfall could easily exceed 10 inches before the end of harvest around Christmas time. Getting trucks and combines mired in the muddy fields is also not uncommon.

“If you meet a farmer around here who tells you he hasn’t gotten something stuck, he hasn’t been farming very long,” Medine says.

This year’s harvest season, which started in late September, has been dry so far and Medine has received good feedback from the mill about the quality of the sugar coming in.

“We’re looking forward to a good crop. Not a record-breaking crop but a good one,” he says.

Medine, like other farmers in Louisiana, cuts sugarcane with harvesters equipped with tank-like tracks, then loads the cane into trucks that take it to sugar mills for processing.

The mill processes the cane into raw sugar and then it goes to a refinery where it is made into food-grade sugar products that are sold to food processors and grocery stores.

Medine farms with his two brothers, Trent and Tracy, and his father, Brian. Through the years, they have seen many changes. New equipment to enhance efficiency. New sugar varieties to better withstand Louisiana’s unforgiving climate. And new economic pressures.

“Farming has gotten a lot more expensive,” he says. “But sugar prices haven’t kept pace.”

In fact, food makers pay about the same for sugar today as they did when President Jimmy Carter was in office.

Medine says bad actors abroad are a big part of low prices. Mexico, for example, broke U.S. trade laws and dumped subsidized sugar on the U.S. market in 2013 and 2014. The result was a $2 billion loss for U.S. farmers like Medine.

The Trump Administration finally reached a deal with Mexico in June to bring its industry back into compliance with U.S. trade law. But a lot of damage was done.

And Medine worries that farm policy critics are lobbying against the strong farm policies needed to preserve the jobs and production that Mexico jeopardized.

“It really bothers me when sugar farmers get attacked by lobbyists for big candy companies and extreme think tanks,” he says. “It’s amazing how jaded people can be. We have a good, low-cost product that’s grown right here in America and supports thousands of good-paying jobs. Why would anyone want to outsource that production by dismantling our farm policy?”

Medine hopes lawmakers remember Louisiana’s long, proud sugar history as they debate the 2018 Farm Bill. He’s the fifth generation in the family to farm sugar cane.

“Here in Louisiana, it’s been more than 200 years we’ve been harvesting cane,” he says. “The sugar industry, while it has suffered in the past, it’s been able to keep a lot of local businesses afloat due to the fact that we have that good program. I have two boys at home and third on the way. I would sure hope to see them be the sixth generation out here.”