During last year’s Agri-Pulse policy summit, I was on a panel discussing young farmers and what’s needed to encourage more young people to farm. It’s not a mystery, I explained. We need to cross our T’s.
By that, I mean, America needs to focus on technology, trade, transportation and the tools needed to combat agriculture’s unique risks.
Let’s start with risk management tools first. No matter what a farmer grows, he or she faces challenges unlike that of any other business. Mother Nature can wipe out a whole year’s worth of hard work in a single day. Markets are manipulated by foreign governments and speculators. And prices aren’t keeping up with the rising cost of running a capital intensive business.
In sugar, our prices are lower today than they were in 1980, yet the cost of labor, fuel, equipment and crop inputs are steadily climbing and creating an impossible financial squeeze.
Capital is the biggest hurdle to entry in farming – especially today when farm incomes are at a 12-year low. Lenders will not extend loans to young growers, who lack the equity of our older peers, unless there is confidence of repayment.
With our lenders, that confidence comes from the no-cost sugar policy found in the Farm Bill. That’s why dozens of sugar farmers from across the country have been in D.C. over the past three weeks, visiting hundreds of Congressional offices.
Our message has been simple: “Don’t cut our families out of the Farm Bill.”
Unfortunately, cutting sugar farmers out of the Farm Bill is exactly what some farm policy critics want to do. They are lobbying for legislation we call the Sugar Farmer Bankruptcy Bill.
This bill would limit sugar farmers’ access to the farm policy tools available to other crops. And it would force the USDA to oversupply the U.S. market with subsidized foreign sugar.
On Tuesday, nearly 60 banks and Certified Public Accountants sent Congress a letter opposing this bill. These signatories know the economics of sugar production better than anyone, and they know that the proposed legislation favors subsidized foreign producers over American jobs.
And that brings me to the topic of trade. Wednesday’s policy summit explored the need to open new markets for U.S. food and fiber. That is absolutely essential to rural America and to young farmers. So is addressing the trade distorting policies that put farmers like me at a disadvantage.
Take Mexico, for example, which was found guilty of breaking U.S. trade law and dumping subsidized sugar on the U.S. market. U.S. sugar producers lost $4 billion as a result, and my colleagues in Hawaii were driven out of sugar business altogether.
We think we have the problem with Mexico fixed, but the global sugar market remains the world’s most distorted. Brazil, Thailand and India are all huge subsidizers and are all looking to gain market share at the expense of American producers.
Young farmers need to be able to compete on a level playing field. When the rules are fair, I know we will come out on top.
That’s largely a result of the investments America is making to maximize efficiency. We’re investing in better equipment. We are investing in the rural infrastructure to improve how we transport our goods to market. And we are investing in better technologies to boost yields.
As we deal with tighter margins, changes in the weather, pests, and other risks, research will play an even bigger role in the future of farming.
It’s important for people to remember that sugar and Louisiana are synonymous. Cane traces its roots back more than 250 years in the state. Today, sugar employs more than 16,000 Louisianans. And, in most of the state’s cane belt, we really cannot grow anything else.
Someday, I hope my sons will farm the fields my father, my grandfather, great grandfather, and great-great grandfather have all cared for in the Baton Rouge area. For that to happen, we must make smart decisions today in farm policy tools, in trade, in transportation, and in technology.
About the author: Travis Medine is a fifth-generation sugar farmer from Louisiana. He was scheduled to deliver the speech above at Wednesday’s Ag & Food Policy Summit but could not make it to D.C. due to inclement weather.