Governor John Bel Edwards spoke at the 93rd annual meeting of the American Sugar Cane League in early February. The meeting hall was standing room only during the governor’s speech. I’m sure the governor was a draw but the day’s wet weather also got some farmers out of the fields and into the conference room. All due respect to the Governor Edwards, if the sun is out and the fields are dry, a lot of farmers would rather be working the cane rows than listening to speeches.
I’m glad our industry turned out in force for the event, however. It’s important for everyone involved in the sugar business to know what’s going on and how governmental actions affect the cane belt.
Of interest to us was the comments the governor made regarding state funding to the LSU AgCenter. Governor Edwards said he was committed to funding agricultural research because he understands how important the economic contribution agriculture makes to the state, but he warned that unless the legislature can figure out how to plug a $750 million budget hole for the current fiscal period, higher education/AgCenter money could be in jeopardy.
Our unique industry relies on scientific research to develop new sugarcane varieties that are high in sucrose, cold-tolerant, produce good tonnage and able to withstand high winds. There are no private "for profit” corporations working on new sugarcane varieties for us. Our market, while it contributes $2 billion to the state economy, is simply not large enough to attract private research dollars to help us develop new technologies for our changing environment. We put our money where our mouth is, so to speak and make an ever increasing monetary contribution to LSU AgCenter research efforts and the United States Department of Agriculture Sugarcane Research Unit. It’s not enough, however, and we want to see continued state support for the AgCenter.
We can’t build our own roads either. It’s a fact that the farmers built a lot of the farm-to-market roads even before there was a state department of transportation but today’s modern highway grid requires millions of dollars of maintenance. We rely on a sustainable transportation grid that allows us to efficiently transport our crop from the fields to the mills.
Some of the ideas the governor put forth to be debated during the February 14 – March 9 special session was to take $200 million owed to the state for expenses incurred during the BP oil spill disaster and apply it to the deficit. He stressed that the $200 million was not from the money set aside for coastal restoration. He also proposed a 1-cent state sales tax that excludes grocery, prescription drugs and residential utilities. He also proposed using $128 million from the "rainy day” fund. Unfortunately, as much as $160 million in cuts may be needed to balance the budget.
Louisiana’s sugarcane farmers understand adversity and know how to overcome it. This past year our season started out on a record-setting pace. Then the rain came and our cane producers endured muddy conditions for the remainder of the season. The mud affected sugar recovery yields. On the other hand, fuel costs were the lowest they’ve been in years so that helped to offset some of the problems. Wherever there is a problem, there’s a solution.
Looking at adversity philosophically doesn’t ease the pain of hardship but my hope is that the current state administration will find the wisdom to see us through to the other side.