According to Fleming, if legislators had used the language ‘‘cane states'' instead of ‘‘mainland states'' in the farm bill, Imperial Valley farmers could have been locked out of a sugar cane market potentially worth tens of millions of dollars to them.
Until now, only Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Hawaii had been sugar cane producers, but California wanted to get into the market. Originally, the farm bill designated only the four current cane producers as ‘‘cane states.''
They were the ones that likely would have been authorized by the secretary of agriculture to let growers sell cane domestically if it hadn't been for grass-roots lobbying by Fleming and Craig Elmore, one of his business partners. That's because sugar prices have been low, really low.
U.S. sugar production was at record highs in 2000 because of more harvested acres of sugar beets and sugar cane. The laws of supply and demand were strict on growers and processors, sending sugar prices to their lowest levels in 20 years. And prices have remained low.
To help the ailing sugar industry, legislators wanted to crack down on overproduction by imposing an allotment system, that would have limited the amount of sugar cane that could be sold in each producing state. Initially, lawmakers were going to limit allotments to existing ‘‘cane states,'' but Fleming, Elmore and friends wanted to change their minds because recent experiments showed Imperial County could produce cane, too.
Legislators finally agreed to allowing new ‘‘mainland states,'' meaning those in the continental United States, to process sugar in addition to the four current producing states.
‘‘Not too many states would grow cane anyway'' because it's a tropical crop, Fleming said.
The two words Fleming had lobbied for were included in a compromise version of the bill worked out by negotiators from both the House and Senate. Final approval of the measure by both chambers appears likely by the end of next week.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, who led a petition drive in the House that would allow California to grow sugar cane, said in a news release that Imperial Valley's sugar cane crops could be sold not only for sugar but for other uses.
‘‘This includes renewable power from biomass that will allow farmers to run this industry independently, and ethanol, which will be very important in the future as a gas additive when California phases out methyl tertiary butyl ether,'' he said.
According to Fleming, the county's new sugarcane capability would help supplement its sugar beet industry. Sugar beets are a cool-weather crop, grown in the winter. Sugar cane needs warm weather and can be grown in the other seasons.
‘‘Introducing sugar cane affords us the opportunity to process sugar year round,'' he said.
It also could help the state's sugar beet industry, which has dropped to ‘‘about half the size it was 10 years ago,'' said Jack Roney, director of economic and policy analysis at the American Sugar Alliance.
Sugar cane could help Imperial Valley farmers diversify their product line. Fleming, who is a sugar beet farmer, estimated Imperial Bioresources and its contractors would grow 15,000 acres of sugar cane eventually. Currently, cane is grown experimentally on only 250 acres in the county, he said. There's a lot of work to be done, Fleming said, before farmers work out an effective cane-growing business plan with processors.