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Farmers go to Washington

Plaquemine cane producer Patrick Frischhertz in U.S. House Ag Committee Meeting Room

Louisiana’s sugar farmers and millers have been producing a reliable source of America’s favorite ingredient for centuries but so have our foreign competitors.

Our producers thrive in the face of adversity. We grow a profitable crop in nine months while the rest of the world has the luxury of a twelve-month growing season. We are some of the most efficient producers in the world and believe our farmers can compete with any farmer in the world.

What our farmers cannot compete against is a foreign government. In many countries, governments provide direct subsidies to their growers to keep them working and in business. They encourage their growers to overproduce. These foreign producers sell their sugar to supply their domestic needs but when they overproduce, they try to sell their excess product at whatever fire sale price they can get on the world dump market.

This past February and March, Louisiana sugarcane producers left their muddy boots at home, got dressed up in suits, ties and dress shoes, and trekked to Washington D.C. to meet with Members of Congress. Their goal was to educate our national leaders about the challenges to raise a crop and the ever-present threat of heavily subsidized foreign-produced sugar displacing domestic production.

Our farmer advocates tell our policymakers that Louisiana, along with Florida and 14 other sugarbeet states produce enough sugar to satisfy about 70 percent of America’s needs. Sadly, Texas sugarcane producers fighting water treaty issues with Mexico, decided to leave the sugar industry this year. While we produce a lot of sugar, because of trade obligations, the U.S. must import sugar and remains the world’s third largest importer of sugar.

Our farmers and millers advise Congress that it’s important for our country not to become more reliant on foreign sugar supplies, that we need farm and trade policies that allow our American farmers and workers to survive.

For most Americans, a trip to Washington D.C. is a vacation but for the state’s cane growers and millers, it’s strictly a business trip. They would rather be preparing their fields for the 2024 crop. The trip, called a “fly-in,” is a whirlwind three-day event of business meetings from the early morning to late night. It’s work. This year, 22 sugarcane farmers, millers and landowners participated in two separate waves of fly-ins. The message is simple: maintain and strengthen the safety net provided in the sugar policy of the farm bill. The farm bill is up for renewal this year.

Drew Maciasz

Drew Maciasz of Brusly is one of two landowner representatives on the American Sugar Cane League’s board of directors. He is president of Harry L. Laws & Company, former operator of the Cinclare Central Factory in West Baton Rouge Parish.  This is his second trip to Washington, D.C. on behalf of the sugarcane industry.

“We are a large agricultural landowner and sugar is our flagship,” he said.  “When you make a decision to go to D.C. in this capacity, it’s all business. When we go there, the policymakers value our input and genuinely want to know the issues we have. They recognize that the face-to-face interaction means something to us, so, in turn, it becomes meaningful to them in understanding our concerns.”

Patrick Engemann lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, and three daughters. He supports his young family by farming sugarcane in the Maringouin-Livonia area. His father was a sugarcane farmer before him. He understands how important it is for the next generation of sugarcane farmers to step up and represent the industry. It was his first fly-in.

“I’m way more comfortable behind the wheel of a tractor than in Washington,” Engemann said. “But sugarcane is my livelihood. I grew up in the field and I know how vital it is for policymakers to understand who is responsible for growing the sugarcane that makes sugar. Agriculture is the most important industry we have, and I told them that the farm bill’s sugar policy works at no cost to the taxpayer, and they really appreciated that fact, but I think having a farmer explain it hit home for them.”

Nick Gerace of Melville put his first sugarcane crop in the ground in 2017 so he’s relatively new to sugarcane. It was his first trip to D.C. representing sugar.

“I grew up a grain farmer,” he said. “I met with Congressional staffers from Michigan which is a sugarbeet state and they were very receptive. But I can say that when they were hearing about sugar policy from the farmers who grow it, they realized the weight of it because we’re the one with the boots on the ground.”

During one meeting Gerace made a personal connection with a Representative from Ohio and received an invitation to a ranch in Ohio which is likely to lead to more opportunity to discuss the sugarcane industry.

Other farmers and millers who made the business trip to Washington included Ricky Gonsoulin, Patrick Frischhertz, Gary Gravois, Lance Gaudet, Bryan Simon, Travis Medine, Shelby Duplantis, Stephen Simoneaux, Catherine Floyd, Gert Hawkins, Kyle Zenon, Chris Patout, Keith Crochet, Sandor Garcia, Chad Hanks, Josh Hebert, Lance Weber and Todd Landry.

Without a strong sugar policy, American sugar farmers like Engemann and his employees would be at a clear disadvantage in the market. They’d face unlimited supplies of subsidized imported sugar, often controlled by foreign government policies designed to protect their own sugar industries. Additionally, American consumers would be subject to the whims of foreign producers who frequently turn supplies to the world on or off with little regard to market conditions depending on their domestic needs.

With this diligent effort, Louisiana’s farmer lobbyists will have made sure that Members of Congress know the difference between pure Louisiana cane sugar and the dump market kind.

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