Sugar backers win key support in Farm Bill

February 13, 2002|By JENNIFER SARANOW, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON — A spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter's office said the California delegation succeeded Tuesday in winning key support for language in the Farm Bill that would allow Imperial Valley farmers to process sugar cane into sugar.

As the bill was written, only sugar cane producers in states that already grow cane for sugar could enter the market. New language to be included in a key amendment would allow other states, including California, to grow and process cane for sugar, said Mike Harrison, Hunter's spokesman.

Harrison said it was significant that the language was written into an amendment by the bill's floor manager, Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, sharply increasing the chance it will be approved without debate. Harrison said he hopes the amendment will be passed by Thursday, when the Senate leaves for a short recess.

‘‘We're very pleased with this,'' Harrison said. ‘‘It shows that Sen. (John) Breaux (D-La.) and other members working on the Farm Bill in the Senate believe that Imperial Valley should be able to qualify for the benefits of the sugar program.''


Last week a bipartisan coalition of 22 California lawmakers sent a petition to Breaux, who is responsible for the bill's sugar language, to modify the bill.

Imperial Valley farmers hoping to expand into the sugar cane industry said they were pleased with the new developments.

Larry Fleming, a sugar beet farmer who recently returned to the Imperial Valley from Washington, formed Imperial Bioresources LLC a few years ago with fellow beet farmers Craig Elmore and Carson Kalin in the hope of expanding the 55-year-old Holly sugar beet plant in Brawley to produce sugar and ethanol from cane.

‘‘We're delighted,'' he said. ‘‘It really gets us to square one as far as getting our project off the ground. We first had to make sure the Farm Bill would accommodate our project and not prevent it. Now we can start aggressively putting together our business model and going from there.''

Introducing sugar cane would allow for the sugar beet factory to be open year-round, create ethanol and incurring lower energy costs by generating energy to run the plant from biomass byproducts. Fleming said, however, that Imperial Bioresources would not be doing the actual expansion or enter into any kind of formal partnership with Texas-based Imperial Sugar Co., the owner of the Holly plant, until the bill is signed into law by the president.

‘‘The different House and Senate bills still have to be rectified in conference,'' he said. ‘‘We still have to survive that process, which I think is very likely.''

Claude Finnell, a co-founder of the Imperial Valley Sugarcane Growers Association, also expressed satisfaction with the news, though he said his project would still only process cane into ethanol, not sugar, to take advantage of the California government's fazing out of the other required gasoline additive MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ethers.

‘‘We're only considering doing ethanol at the moment, but that gives you a double opportunity, so it's a good thing. I know (Imperial Bioresources) worked hard to get that done,'' Finnell said.

Fleming added that having a sugar cane industry in Imperial Valley would save jobs in the sugar beet factory and create new jobs.

A report published in December by University of California researchers Paul Sebesta and Michael Bazdarich showed that sugar cane harvests in Imperial Valley average 50 percent higher tonnage and sugar per acre than Louisiana harvests.

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