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Valley sugar beet farmers finally see ray of sunshine in farm bill amendment

March 16, 2002|By JENNIFER SARANOW

Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — Select members of Congress began meeting this week to rectify differences between recently passed House and Senate farm bills.

As they deliberate, some members could have Imperial Valley and sugar cane in mind.

More than 40 members of the California delegation signed a petition sent to the conference committee members earlier this month asking that the final version of the farm bill contain a Senate amendment allowing new states to enter the U.S. sugar cane market.

If the amendment goes into a final bill signed into law by the president, the letter would be the culmination of a long lobbying effort by Imperial Valley beet farmers Larry Fleming and Craig Elmore to bring sugar cane to California and to the Holly Sugar plant in Brawley.

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Fleming and Elmore's efforts and the compromises they reached with other U.S. sugar cane growers testify that marketing sugar cane in the United States takes a lot more than a semi-tropical climate, a few seeds, a sugar mill, a refining plant and an interested consumer.

It takes perseverance.

‘‘We wore out a lot of shoe leather and stomach lining,'' Fleming said of his and Elmore's lobbying effort started six months ago. ‘‘We plied the halls of the Capitol and walked until we about to drop. We probably covered every floor of all three House office buildings 15 times.''

Four years ago, Texas-based Imperial Sugar suggested turning the Holly Sugar Plant into a year-round facility that could process both sugar beets and sugar cane because the plants have different harvesting seasons.

Imperial Valley sugar beet farmers Fleming, Elmore and Carson Kalin liked the idea enough to form Imperial Bioresources LLC in the hopes of expanding the 55-year old plant. They began testing the viability of sugar cane crops in Valley soil with the help of researcher Paul Sebesta at the University of California Desert Research and Extension Center in the El Centro area. They found that cane grew better in Valley soil than in the soil of the major cane state, Louisiana.

When Fleming and Elmore finally had a cohesive business plan last fall it included a lot more than the marketing of sugar from cane and beets. It proposed using byproducts from sugar-cane processing to partly power the plant and producing ethanol from sugar cane refining waste.

Ethanol is a gasoline additive that should become more sought when California phases out the gas additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, at the end of the year.

Fleming and Elmore said their plan ensures jobs in the California sugar industry would continue even with the possible depletion of the state's sugar beet business.

A tropical grass native to Asia and first turned into sugar in India, sugar cane was brought to the United States by Christopher Columbus.

With their plan in hand, Fleming and Elmore set out for Washington, only to be met with a plethora of opposition because of ‘‘the anticipated system of allotments,'' Fleming said.

For years the federal government has operated a sugar program consisting of quotas on foreign sugar and special loans to domestic producers. Because such loans can be repaid with excess production instead of money, the quotas ensure sugar prices remain high even in the likelihood of many loan forfeitures.

Plus, under international trade agreements, the United States is required to take in a certain amount of imports each year. All of these variables resulted in a domestic sugar price well above the world market price as well as overabundant domestic production of sugar.

Sugar cane production also is subject to the overarching command of soil conditions, weather and moisture levels, said Jack Roney, staff economist at the American Sugar Alliance. So, for example, when in 2000 there was an unusually large crop, overproduction sent domestic prices to a 22-year low and the U.S. Agriculture Department decided to repurchase sugar from farmers to prevent major forfeitures

According to a USDA spokesman, this year's House and Senate farm bills specify that the secretary of agriculture can set production allotments for each state to prevent loan forfeitures and curb overproduction.

This is not the first time allotments have been proposed, but they differ from those in the past. Allotments passed in 1990 were not enforced unless the agriculture secretary deemed them necessary.

A USDA spokesman said the 1990 allotments were eliminated in 1996 because ‘‘prices were pretty good then. Cane mills and beet factories were having trouble getting enough farmers to fill their factories.''

The situation is different today with recent low prices and overproduction. Thus, the allotments in the current House and Senate farm bills would be in force unless the agriculture secretary turned off the allocations, a move that seems unlikely in the current atmosphere.

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