New Challenges, Same Work Ethic

The sugar industry has used a familiar formula to navigate the challenges of 2020.

Published online: Aug 14, 2020 Feature Luther Markwart, Executive Vice President, ASGA
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This column appears in the August/September 2020 issue of Sugar Producer.

The past six months brought great challenges and changes to our nation and the world. Monitoring and digesting massive amounts of information to navigate an ever-changing environment has required unprecedented time, attention and collaboration at the local, state and national levels. Let’s look at a number of successes in the sugar industry during this time.

  1. Getting WHIP+ disaster funds to growers through the cooperatives (except Sidney, Mont., which must go through the FSA county offices) allowed a number of growers to get financing to put the 2020 crop in the ground.
  2. The domestic sugar industry provides over 60 different types of sugar to the market in a variety of packages from teaspoon packets to 220,000-pound railcars. In a matter of weeks, the national market pivoted from supplying 650,000 restaurants to 40,000 grocery stores, and our industry successfully responded by packaging more grocery retail packages to meet initial hoarding and spiking demand.
  3. We pressed USDA to be cautious in balancing the sugar market and not to increase imports above levels needed. There were significant discrepancies in various import and consumption projections USDA relied on. Thankfully, we prevailed, and the market remains balanced.
  4. The anti-dumping and countervailing duty suspension agreements with Mexico have been extended for five years.
  5. The 2020 crop is moving forward with significant replants in the Northwest and Michigan, but overall, a good crop is coming. We just need to harvest the crop and get it in the bins.

In comparison to the tremendous challenges in other commodities, sugar is doing well. We have been sharing this good news with members of Congress during our virtual fundraisers. Thanks to sugar producers’ PAC contributions, we can share our story of meeting consumer needs, employee safeguards in our factories, and our important contributions to our communities. Congress is very concerned about supply chain failures during the COVID-19 pandemic and have told us to expect efforts that bring our supply chains back home for essential goods. We welcome this discussion because we carry large inventories and have strong supply chains that benefit our customers. We will find every way to share our story of this important American-made product and everything that goes into it.

The USMCA agreement went into effect on July 1. We are closely monitoring the trade negotiations between the U.S. and the UK and between the U.S. and Kenya. We have been providing written input on numerous technical issues.

We have been closely monitoring the attack on dicamba. This in another example of biotechnology opponents and class-action trial lawyers using the courts to attack essential pesticides. This demands our constant attention, and we are fully engaged with other commodity groups and pesticide manufacturers to address these problems.

The congressional appropriations process was in full swing in July. Attacks on the sugar industry are always a concern. Funding the government and finishing another COVID-19 aid package was the primary focus prior to the August recess. We are also in the early stages of working on climate and sustainability legislation to provide carbon credits for improved agricultural practices.

Washington, D.C., like the rest of the country, has had major protests over the thoughtless killing of George Floyd and countless other black Americans. A major rally is planned for August on the National Mall at the Lincoln Memorial to rival the 1963 March on Washington. We hope peaceful protests will force long-needed changes. If we are to remain a great nation, we need to come to grips with this problem. We must allow for self-reflection and commit to meaningful reform in order to become a better nation. It is incumbent on every citizen to contribute to the solution.

The political environment and, by extension, campaigns, are in a constant state of flux. As we move through an unconventional primary season, we are gaining clarity into voters’ options in November. Incumbents have largely made it through the primary season. Challenges to incumbents from within one’s own party—either from the left, right or center—have mostly failed. There are plenty of open seats. Retirements, members running for other offices, and over 20 toss-up seats make predicting post-election results difficult. The House is expected to remain in the control of Democrats, and control of the Senate is now in question.

The presidential election will be one of the most unique in history because of the pandemic, economy and racial tensions. These factors will complicate traditional campaigning and will drive voter turnout. Agriculture association CEOs have prepared a briefing document to explain to both campaigns the state of American agriculture. It identifies problems and recommends solutions to get agriculture healthy again.  America’s food and agriculture sectors are responsible for nearly one-fifth of U.S. economic activity, directly supporting 23 million jobs (around 15 percent of U.S. employment), and contributes $7 trillion in direct and indirect economic output. Farmers and their agribusiness partners are the economic backbone of our economy and are critically important politically. The ASGA played an important role in drafting the document for the betterment of all of agriculture.