Cause for Celebration

Published online: Mar 20, 2022 Feature, Grower of the Month Courtney Gaine, President & CEO, The Sugar Association
Viewed 390 time(s)
This article appears as the cover feature in the March 2022 issue of Sugar Producer.

Each year in March, the nation comes together to increase public awareness of agriculture’s role in society and to celebrate the dedication of America’s farmers and farm families. The National Ag Day program was initiated by the Agriculture Council of America (ACA) in 1973. This year, we will observe this occasion on March 22. Naturally, you’ll find us doing a little bit extra celebrating of the people and plants that bring us real sugar. 

Celebrating Real Sugar

If you’re reading this, you already know that the real sugar in our food supply comes only from sugarbeets and sugarcane. While all green plants make sucrose, or sugar, sugarbeets and sugarcane produce the greatest quantities of sugar, making them the most efficient crops from which to extract sugar. Many beet and cane farms have been passed down for several generations, making sugar growing an important family legacy. This year, as we celebrate all the farmers who grow beets and cane, and all the working hands in between, we’d like to highlight a few of those special people who play a role in bringing real sugar to consumers’ tables.

Meet Michael Ann Relka

Michael Ann Relka of Mitchell, Nebraska, is both an agriculturalist and a farmer. She has worked directly with the growers of Western Sugar for 12 years, helping them produce a quality beet crop and ensuring that product is able to be processed at the factory. While her job changes throughout the year, Relka is currently managing the beet piles at the receiving stations Scottsbluff and Bayard, Nebraska, and working with growers to prepare for the coming seasons. She and her husband, Justin, are also preparing for the coming farm season; they grow sugarbeets in addition to dry edible beans and corn on their western Nebraska farm.

Farming and raising sugarbeets hold a lot of sentimental value to Relka. Both her father and grandfather were farmers and raised sugarbeets on some of the same ground Michael Ann and her husband farm today. She is proud to be raising her children within that same family heritage.

Relka loves both her day job and farming with her family. Getting to be out on the land, working with amazing people, and spending time with kids on the farm are some of the perks.

“Agriculture is not just a job, it’s a community,” she says. “There are some amazing people behind that tiny granule of sugar that shows up in your kitchen. As a culture we have used sugar for centuries. It has a heritage on its own.”

“Agriculture is a community,” says Nebraska sugarbeet grower Michael Ann Relka. “There are some amazing people behind that tiny granule of sugar.”

Meet Luis Ruiz

Luis Ruiz of Belle Glade, Florida, has uncles in the sugar industry, but he is the first in his family to be a sugarcane grower. Ruiz has been working on farms for almost 10 years and has more recently taken on the role of assistant manager of Wedgworth Farms. He is proud to have worked his way up at such a young age. As assistant farm manager, Ruiz oversees planting and fertilizing the sugarcane among other things. In addition to sugarcane, Ruiz also grows rice at Wedgworth.

Ruiz has always loved being outside and enjoys the day-to-day variability in his job. The Sugar Cane Growers’ Co-op structure is the perfect fit because it allows him to learn so much while gaining real-life experience and facing new challenges daily. Ruiz gets to work with a lot of people, many of them from different countries. He says it’s incredible to see the crop flourish from all the hard work and labor that goes into it.

Ruiz is very passionate about sustainability and has loved learning more about sustainable farming while working with sugarcane.

“There is so much technology, hard work, knowledge, time and effort that goes into farming correctly so that you can continue to see success in your land,” he says.

Although he recognizes a lot goes into taking care of land properly, Ruiz aspires to start his own farm one day.

In addition to the serious work, Ruiz says they do find time for a little pleasure.

“I like to eat sugarcane straight out of the field,” he says. “When we’re planting the sugarcane stalks, pretty much everyone will grab a stalk of sugarcane, shave off the outside and chew on it. It’s a nice, sweet treat.”

Ruiz knows it’s a unique opportunity to enjoy sugarcane straight out of the field, tasting the sugar we all know and love straight from the source.

Florida sugarcane grower Luis Ruiz has enjoyed learning from those who have come before him in the sugar industry.

Real Sugar, Real Efforts

At the Sugar Association, we share sugar’s origin story year-round, connecting consumers to the plants, the product and the people that give us real sugar. We call this our “real sugar” message, and it is intended to increase consumer awareness that real sugar comes from sugarbeet and sugarcane plants grown on real farms by real people. It’s a simple message, but it is one that resonates with consumers.

Leveraging this message in consumer awareness advertising campaigns the past two years has shown us that simply seeing images of sugarbeets and sugarcane changes consumers’ feelings about how sugar is processed and leaves them feeling more confident about sugar’s role in a balanced diet. Sharing the perspective and stories of farmers and processors, such as Michael Ann Relka and Luis Ruiz, on our blog connects consumers to the people behind Real Sugar, making the ingredient people know and love more relatable.

These efforts in pushing out the Real Sugar message have been impactful. Eighty percent of consumers now agree that “Real Sugar” is naturally occurring, although only 54% of people view “table sugar” as naturally occurring (up from 29% in 2018). While progress has been made, it’s clear there is much work to be done as we continue to reach more and more consumers with the Real Sugar story in 2022.

Happy National Ag Day, and thank you to the farmers and processors who make Real Sugar possible. Join us in celebrating our favorite agricultural commodity and the people who bring it to our tables by using #RealSugar and #ThankAFarmer in your social media posts the week of March 22.

To learn about events or more about ACA’s efforts, visit www.agday.org.