THIBODAUX, LA. – Local bankers are always competing for customers but one thing they agree on is that the sugarcane industry is good for business.
"We look at each individual sugarcane farmer’s financial strengths when we make a loan, but having a good strong national sugar policy sure makes it easier for the bank to approve a farm loan,” said Fred Mills, president of Farmers Merchants Bank of Breaux Bridge. "Because of the sugar policy, a sugarcane farmer goes into the season knowing that he’s going to make at least a break even crop.”
Mills’ bank services St. Martin Parish. The parish sugarcane crop produced more than 181 million pounds of raw sugar with a value of $69.5 million in 2011.
Lenny Waguespack of First South Farm Credit in Thibodaux agrees.
"The sugar program works and that really takes the pressure off the local and regional banks,” Waguespack said. "It makes our job just a little bit easier.”
First South is a major agricultural lender in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, and sugar policy gives them the confidence to extend capital to sugarcane producers, Waguespack said.
Waguespack, a division vice president, oversees farm loans from Lafayette to Terrebonne parishes.
Mills and Waguespack know what they’re talking about. Combined they have more than thirty years of banking experience.
Bankers higher up the food chain hope to see a new farm bill with sugar policy remaining intact.
"Simply put, the sugar program works,” wrote David Wilson of First South Farm Credit in a July 24 letter to the House Agriculture Committee."It is the only no-cost federal farm program and it effectively stabilizes an efficient U.S. sugar industry against unfairly subsidized, dumped foreign sugar.”
Wilson, headquartered in Zachary, oversees all commodity loans in Louisiana. The Zachary branch manages sugarcane loans in the Pointe Coupee area, where sugarcane’s value is more than $113 million.
David Kessler, president and CEO of the Bank of Commerce in White Castle, La., sent a letter to the House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) in support of the current U.S. sugar policy.
"Weakening the U.S. sugar policy or changing it to an unproven system would undoubtedly affect our customers’ ability to repay loans and would negatively impact not only our bank, but would send shockwaves through the entire economy, jeopardizing hundreds of thousands of jobs,” Kessler said.
Jim Simon, manager of the American Sugar Cane League, said sugar is the world’s most heavily subsidized commodity and a strong sugar policy is the only way to level the playing field for Louisiana sugarcane growers.
The American Sugar Cane League represents the scientific research and political interests of the Louisiana sugarcane industry.
"The world market is badly distorted and it stands to reason that the American sugarcane grower needs help,” Simon said. "The amazing thing about sugar policy is that it doesn’t cost the taxpayer a dime. Sugarcane and sugar beet farms don’t receive a penny in any type of subsidy from the government. Sugar policy is a no-cost program.”
Support for the current sugar policy is strong, Simon said. The American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union are pushing to renew the sugar policy.
Simon said Congress is in recess right now and is hopeful that a new Farm Bill is passed soon.
"The Senate passed the Farm Bill and sent it to the House of Representatives,” Simon said. "The House Agriculture Committee overwhelmingly passed the bill. All that’s waiting for a new policy to be set in place is a vote on the House floor and the President’s signature.”
Louisiana’s total sugarcane industry including farm and mill production is $1.1 billion. The total economic impact of sugarcane on the state is more than $3 billion.
The American Sugar Cane League is a non-profit organization of Louisiana sugar cane growers and processors. Incorporated in 1922, the Louisiana sugar industry was, at that time, threatened with extinction by cane diseases.
The primary purpose of the organization at its inception was to provide the industry with an adequate research program to combat the decline of sugar cane yields.
Today, the League's main functions continue to be research, along with legislation, product promotion, education and public relations.