The Sugar Beat
With an eye to the future of U.S. sugar production, the American Sugar Alliance recently formed a Young Farmer Advisory Board, which will advise the industry on strengthening policies and encouraging new sugar farmers to enter the business.
The advisory board is comprised of 20 farmers and agricultural lenders from 14 states. Members are 35 years old or younger, and despite their geographic diversity, the challenges they face are very similar.
“Without a doubt, the cost of starting a farm and access to capital are the biggest hurdles,” said Rita Gentner, a 23-year-old farmer from Michigan, who is part of the newly formed panel.
Land prices are at historic levels and climbing, and input costs for sugar production have skyrocketed in recent years. For example, energy costs are up nearly 90 percent since 2002, while equipment costs have grown 32 percent and fertilizer and other crop inputs by 98 percent over that same period.
And for many sugar growers who belong to a cooperative—as is the case with all sugarbeet growers and some cane farmers—an additional investment in company shares is often required.
Yet young farmers often lack the liquid assets, collateral, and business track records that older farmers possess, and this makes it harder to secure loans.
“Farmers borrow more money every year than most people do in a lifetime,” explained Derek Orsenigo, a member of the new advisory board who grows for the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. “Unless our lenders have confidence that we can pay them back, we have no shot at adequate financing.”
And that confidence is where farm policy comes into play, says Louisiana cane farmer Lee Harang, another board member.
“As a starting sugar farmer who hopes to spend a lifetime in the business, I need to show my banker that I’ll get a fair price for my crop, that there is long-term market stability, and that foreign subsidies and unfair trading practices won’t run me out of business,” Harang said.
The Young Farmer Advisory Board expects to be active during the 2012 Farm Bill process, and many board members were in Washington recently to meet with lawmakers. But California farmer Ryan Mamer says this will be a long-term project with a focus on future domestic and international policy issues.
“Unfortunately, farming is an aging business, and that should scare everyone. There are fewer people to produce food for a rapidly growing world population,” he said. “This problem won’t fix itself over night, and it’s the responsibility of all U.S. farmers to ensure that the next generation can continue our proud tradition.”
The American Sugar Alliance’s Young Farmer Advisory Board consists of:
California—Ryan Mamer, 28
Colorado—Dustin Welp, 28
Florida—Derek Orsenigo, 25
Florida—Alex Tiedtke, 29
Florida—Keith Wedgworth, 35
Florida—Kevin Wedgworth, 35
Idaho—Tyson Ruff, 26
Louisiana—Lee Harang, 33
Louisiana—Travis Medine, 31
Michigan—Rita Gentner, 23
Minnesota— Brent Halfmann, 28
Minnesota—Alex Petersen, 24
Montana—Brian Buxbaum, 29
Montana—Cavin Steiger, 28
Nebraska—Nathan Oligmueller, 26
North Dakota—Paul Ellefson, 27
Oregon—Dan Corn, 27
Texas—Dustin Dickerson, 27
Washington—Kellen Hartley, 26
Wyoming—Bryce Vigil, 23
In addition, two older colleagues will participate in board discussions to provide perspective on the industry’s history and to serve as mentors to the beginning farmers. Those mentors are Kelly Erickson, a Minnesota farmer currently serving as president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, and Jim Simon, a former banker and current executive director of the American Sugar Cane League based in Thibodaux, Louisiana.
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