Farm bill raises sweet hopes

February 12, 2002|By JENNIFER SARANOW, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — Rep. Duncan Hunter said Monday he is "cautiously optimistic" that the farm bill pending in the Senate will be modified as soon as today to allow Imperial Valley farmers to grow cane for sugar.

As written, the bill would allow only sugar cane producers in states already growing cane to be in the market.

"I think we're going to be able to get this accommodation for our guys to grow (cane for sugar)," Hunter said. "The folks that I talked to today think that we may have an answer by tomorrow and, as of right now, things are looking very good. Our California delegation really helped out with this."

Last week a bipartisan coalition of 22 California lawmakers sent a petition to Louisiana Sen. John Breaux urging modification of the sugar cane language in the Senate's farm bill to allow other states, such as California, to develop sugar from cane.


Breaux, responsible for the sugar language in the bill and whose state has a developed sugar cane industry, was unavailable for comment.

However, Imperial Valley farmers who want to expand into sugar cane production came to Washington last week to lobby on behalf of the Valley and said they were optimistic the bill would be changed.

"I think the chances are quite good that we will get the change we need just based on having been in Washington and watching the process and continuing to be in touch with people there," said Larry Fleming, an Imperial sugar beet farmer who just returned to Imperial Valley after a week in Washington.

Hunter said changes to the bill would be like "giving a shot in the arm to our fading sugar industry without threatening sugar cane operations in other parts of the country. It provides us with the so-called triple play that we'll be able to use sugar cane to produce ethanol, some electricity and some sugar.

This triple benefit will make it much more economically feasible to keep our sugar operations running."

Fleming said last year two of the four remaining sugar beet-processing facilities in California closed. He and fellow Imperial Valley beet farmers Craig Elmore and Carson Kalin have formed Imperial Bioresources LLC in the hopes of expanding the 55-year-old Holly Sugar plant near Brawley to produce sugar and ethanol from cane as well as renewable energy to power the plant from the biomass byproducts.

The federal government allows sugar cane to be grown in Imperial Valley, but strictly for ethanol, not sugar. Fleming said, however, that by producing sugar his business would incur substantially lower unit costs because it would produce three commodities.

Moreover, introducing sugar cane would allow farmers to keep the sugar beet factory open year-round, rather than just four to five months, because of the different growing and harvesting seasons of the two crops.

Finally, by generating its own energy, Fleming said the sugar-processing facility would have much cheaper energy costs "and save the sugar beet industry as well, and that's our primary goal as sugar beet growers."

According to Paul Sebesta, director of the University of California Desert Research and Extension Center in El Centro, research in the 1960s and 1970s first showed sugar cane could be grown well in Imperial Valley, but the current quest to create a local industry really gained steam in 1997 with the idea that sugar cane could be used to produce ethanol. California's slow phase out of MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ethers, as an additive to gasoline by 2003, placed an emphasis on the other required additive, ethanol.

In December, Sebesta published a joint report with economist Michael Bazdarich,

director of the UC Riverside Forecasting Center, showing sugar cane harvests in the Imperial Valley average 50 percent higher in tonnage and in sugar per acre than Louisiana harvests. Sebesta attributed the results to Imperial Valley's favorable climate and 365-day growing season.

Sebesta said his research also showed "creating an ethanol facility is economically viable in the absence of any ability to sell sugar from sugar cane, but the ability to sell the sugar improves the economic conditions and allows for more flexibility."

Similarly, Claude Finnell, a co-founder of the Imperial Valley Sugarcane Growers Association and former county agricultural commissioner, said his project would benefit from this farm bill modification, even though his company hopes to process cane into ethanol, not sugar.

"It would be good economically if we could also make sugar and sell that out of the cane," he said. "It would be valuable for us if we could have a dual program and another outlet."

Fleming said he thinks the Imperial Valley might become the only place in the world where sugar beets and sugar cane could be processed in the same facility to create sugar and ethanol. He added his project would not begin expansion or any kind of formal partnership with Texas-based Imperial Sugar Co., the owners of the Holly plant, until he saw the language in the final bill.

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