The Sugar Beat
A lot of twenty-somethings like myself wrestle with the age-old question: “What do I want to be when I grow up?” And in a down economy, this question can be particularly daunting because possibilities are limited.
Luckily, I’ve known the answer for a long time. I want to farm. Now the question becomes: “Can I afford to pursue my dreams?”
Land prices are at an all-time high, equipment costs are rapidly growing, fuel is expensive and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future, and access to capital is more limited than ever.
Farmers borrow more money per year to cash flow their operations than most people will borrow in a lifetime, but beginning farmers often lack the assets and track records needed to give banks enough confidence to take the risk.
Without operating capital, young growers can’t survive in the farming business, and that should scare the heck out of everyone.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for every producer 25 years or younger, there are five who are over the age of 75. In fact, the average U.S. farmer is 58 years old—the oldest at any time in our country’s history.
Meanwhile, food demands are skyrocketing as the world’s population grows and consumers in developing nations like China and India add wealth and improve their diets. Experts predict that to meet the growing need, we’ll need to produce more food in the next 50 years than has been produced in the past 10,000 years combined.
Global food insecurity is a threat to our national security, and unfortunately, it may be unavoidable without a new crop of farmers to replace an aging workforce.
So how do we get more young people into the farming business to help bridge the gap? Recent crop price increases have helped rekindle interest in rural America, although prices aren’t at historic levels for all commodities.
Sugar prices, for example, were remarkably low until 2009, and following a brief climb have plummeted 20 percent since the summer of 2010. Such peaks and valleys—which are even more pronounced among fruit and vegetable crops—combined with market distorting policies in foreign countries are why banks will not depend on price forecasts alone when extending agricultural loans.
Banks need some certainty provided by the federal government. For Florida’s sugar growers, who don’t receive subsidy checks like many other commodities, this certainty comes from U.S. sugar policy.
Sugar policy is just one small component in the farm bill currently under congressional consideration, but it is the lifeblood of Florida’s sugar industry and much of rural Florida's economy. This policy operates without taxpayer cost by keeping supply and demand in harmony and avoiding huge surpluses or shortages that could harm growers and consumers.
Of course, like any policy, sugar has its detractors—namely large food manufacturers angling for cheaper sugar from heavily subsidized foreign producers. These manufacturers have bankrolled a glitzy lobbying effort to eliminate sugar policy altogether, and more than 12,000 Florida jobs along with it.
Unfortunately, mine is one of those jobs being targeted by big food lobbyists. Not that my job is any more important that the others under attack, but it does beg the question: “Without young farmers, who will grow tomorrow’s food?”
About the author: Derek Orsenigo is a 25-year-old sugarcane farmer from Belle Glade who was recently appointed to the American Sugar Alliance’s Young Farmer Advisory Board. He, along with other board members, recently sent a letter to Congress supporting the continuation of no-cost sugar policy.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Tampa Tribune on June 5.
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