Picking Up Steam

Getting into the meat of matters with the new Congress

Published online: May 03, 2019 News Luther Markwart, Executive Vice President, ASGA
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This column appears in the May 2019 issue of Sugar Producer

The 116th Congress is settling in with the usual transitional challenges, with over 100 new members assembling their staffs and learning their new roles. Washington, D.C., is a town that operates on personal relationships, and those relationships need to be established and maintained very early on with new members. That is why over 70 beet and Louisiana cane growers came to D.C. in late February and early March and teamed up to make 320 congressional and dozens of political fundraisers in an effort to welcome new members of Congress and their staff, and to renew established relationships forged in previous years. 

With the farm bill behind us, it was an opportunity to thank those members who supported U.S. sugar and farm policy. It was also a chance to ask those who did not support the policy what their concerns and reasons were for not supporting our policy. Perhaps another important aspect of these visits is that we were not asking for anything, other than to protect the sugar policy from any attempts to harm it through the appropriations process. Mischief always looks for a legislative back door to bring harm to the policy, so we must constantly be vigilant to those efforts by opponents.

For the new members of Congress, the visits allowed us to explain what our industry is and does for the food security of our nation, and the importance of its economic contribution to our country and the great rural jobs it provides. We have to respond to worldwide unfair trade practices that are rampant and increasing. And we do all of this at no cost to the American taxpayer. It is a great story told by the real people who own the sugar companies and grow the crops. It is a very powerful message delivered by credible and effective messengers. We give thanks to those growers who walk the seemingly endless hallways of the congressional office buildings and to a handful of critically important people in our growing area who schedule all these appointments. It is a massive undertaking to coordinate so many people with so many visits, and our teams do an extraordinary job. There is a great deal of work involved to do this right, and every grower who participates in the effort understands the important impact they are making on your behalf. Thank them for the great job they do for you. 

One of the hot issues being discussed on multiple fronts is sustainability. We are addressing that issue by making it clear that our industry is committed to prioritizing people, protecting the planet, producing superior products and promoting fair-price policies. We seek to align ourselves with our customers and consumers when it comes to our food, our health and our planet.

The good news is we have a great story to tell, and we need to tell it. When you compare the use of the technology (biotech seed, minimum- or no-till, variable-rate fertilizer application, GPS, no-hand labor, etc.) we use compared to other beet and cane producers around the world, we are undoubtedly the best in the world. We have made an environmental quantum leap using less water, sequestering greenhouse gases, reducing fuel usage and more. Now we simply need to quantify it and take credit for it in a very public way. You will hear more about this in the months and years ahead.

On the trade front, we have been closely watching each of the trade negotiations being pursued by the Trump administration with various trading partners. While sugar is our primary focus, it is important to see progress on other commodities and animal products. We have to get the economic health of American agriculture in a much better place for the long term. The Trump administration trade negotiators on agriculture are extremely good, and we are hopeful they can succeed in negotiations with China. Clearly, the toughest China trade issues are in the non-agricultural areas. Hopefully we will have answers to all these questions by the time you read this article.

It has been a tough winter in many parts of the country, and a key to a great crop is how soon growers can get into the fields. May will be a month to get a good assessment on acreage planted and the status of the crop; we hope growers will be able to keep replants to a minimum. We all need a really good crop year.

Mark your calendar: The 2020 ASGA annual meeting will be held Feb. 6-8 in Orlando, Fla., near Disney World. If there ever was a time to attend an ASGA meeting and bring kids or grandkids along, visit friends and family that overwinter in Florida, and hear about key issues impacting the future of our industry, this would be a great opportunity for you.