Local farmers hoping sugar cane can save industry turned sour

November 03, 2001|By LAURA MITCHELL, Staff Writer

Local entrepreneurs are trying to add some sweetness to a sugar industry that's turned sour in recent years.

The farmers are hoping to save the Holly Sugar plant in rural Brawley by adding sugar cane processing to existing beet production.

Sugar prices hit a 20-year low last year and earlier this month sugar farmers dodged another attempt to remove their aide programs from the federal Farm Bill.

California started 2001 with four sugar-processing plants. Now there are only two.

Valley sugar beet farmers Craig Elmore, Larry Fleming and Carson Kalin, co-owners of Brawley-based Imperial Bioresources LLC, have been testing sugar cane production so the Holly plant can operate year-round.


Imperial Bioresources also intends to build a sugar cane-to-ethanol- and electricity-generating plant next to the Holly Sugar site at 395 W. Keystone Road.

Upgrades to the sugar plant and construction of the new ethanol plant are estimated to cost well over $100 million, the Bioresources owners say.

They also say the seasons of the two sugar crops complement each other. Sugar cane grows in the summer and sugar beets grow in the winter.

The Holly plant employs 103 full-time workers and about 300 during the five-month sugar beet season.

Year-round sugar production means the part-time jobs will become full time, Holly Sugar plant union President Abel Aguirre said. Those employees will be eligible to receive health benefits, he said.

Most of the employees at the plant have children, Aguirre said. When the seasonal employees are not working, they don't get any health insurance, he said.

When the plant employees are working, they get supplemental insurance for free, Aguirre said. The supplemental insurance only pays 20 percent of medical bills, he said.

"It doesn't pay much, but it's better than nothing," Aguirre said.

"If this project materializes, it will bring job security to the employees," Aguirre said. "If it doesn't …"

Aguirre said he would not want to guess the plant's future.

In the 1970s, there were nine sugar-processing plants in California, Spreckles Sugar Co. District Manager Bill Stewart said.

Now there are only two, the plant in rural Brawley and another in Mendota.

Two other sugar plants in California stopped processing this year. The two plants, in Woodland and Tracy, remain open for packaging, distributing and storing. Together they employ fewer than 80 workers, Aguirre said.

The sugar industry has gone through so many changes, figuring out who owns the Holly Sugar plant can be confusing.

"This facility is the Holly Sugar facility, owned by Imperial Sugar and doing business as Spreckles," Stewart said.

There were three separate companies, Holly, Imperial and Spreckles, but because of the tough sugar economy, they've merged into one company, Stewart said.

Imperial and Holly Sugar merged in the late 1980s, Stewart said. A couple of years ago, Spreckles was in bankruptcy and getting ready to fold, causing Holly and Imperial to buy Spreckles, he said.

The Holly Sugar plant will produce 170,000 tons of cane sugar — double what it produces now — when it runs year-round, Fleming said.

But, California will still be producing less sugar than in 2000, when the state had four sugar production plants operating, he said.

The Holly plant employees' union — the United Food and Commercial Workers — supports this project, Aguirre said. UFCW has 1.5 million members in the United States and Canada.

Aguirre has been working at the Holly plant for 18 years. He's been a union member all that time and has served the last two years as the local president.

Aguirre said his biggest concern is plant safety, in particular, since part of the plan calls for building an ethanol plant.

"Ethanol is an explosive," he said. "Workers involved in that part of the project would need additional safety training."

Current employees working at the Holly plant would be first in line to get re-training for the higher-paying, full-time jobs, Fleming said.

Construction on the ethanol plant will start within a year and is expected to be completed by November 2004, Aguirre said.

The Bioresources group has already made initial contact with the county to start the permitting process.

Sugar cane-to-ethanol is an exciting part of the plan, but saving sugar is the heart of the project, Fleming said.

Elmore added, "There's the misconception that this is a beet grower plan, but it all started to save Holly."

Fleming said he encourages a variety of farmers in the Imperial Valley to participate. For information on the Web, go to

Staff writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 760-337-3452 or

Imperial Valley Press Online Articles