A guaranteed price for sugar farmers leaves some sour
It may take only a little sugar to make candy and cookies tasty treats, but sugar is big business. This election cycle sugar growers gave more to political campaigns than tobacco companies. Big Sugar spends big to preserve a complex government program that benefits the industry by boosting the domestic price of the crop. It costs consumers about $2 billion annually. And in South Florida nearly 700,000 acres are dedicated to growing sugar cane. That's where 90.7's Amy Green traveled to and filed this report in collaboration with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
Just south of Lake Okeechobee is the Everglades Agricultural Area, where millions of perfectly aligned rows of sugar cane stretch to the horizon in all directions. The green stalks sway like waves in a grassy sea.
The U.S. sugar program makes growing sugar here possible for farmers like Rick Roth. Wearing a plaid shirt, blue jeans and gold chain around his neck, Roth says the sugar program gives him stability.
"I can go to a banker and say, 'Look, I'm producing this many acres of vegetables and this many of sugar cane," he says. "Here's my 10-year history of what I've done in the last 10 years. Will you loan me $2 million to plant crops?' And they go, 'Yeah. Yeah.'"
The sugar program guarantees farmers like Roth a minimum price by controlling supply, limiting imports through tariffs. Roth says farmers need that stability because farming is a risky business, dependent on weather and global markets.
"Having a sugar program means the banker knows with certainty I'm not going to sell the sugar below this price," he says. "He knows I'm going to get at least 18 cents, and he knows I'm going to sell all of my sugar."
While that's good for farmers, several high-ranking congressional members say the sugar supports cost food consumers too much, and they want to end them. But Big Sugar is spending millions of dollars to preserve a program that inflates the cost of groceries like bread, fruit juice and ketchup for all consumers.
Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration at Florida State University, says the program's costs are spread out among consumers, while the benefits are concentrated for sugar growers.
"So the general public doesn't mobilize on the issue. It's not something they see," he says. "Whereas for the industry it's extremely important, and they're attentive to it and mobilize and try to influence policy."
The sugar program is part of the Farm Bill, a massive measure shaping U.S. policy on agriculture, rural development, environmental conservation, food aid and more. It comes up for renewal every five years and is set to expire this year at the end of September.
University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith says the sugar program's effects are complex. He points to losses for confectionary makers.
"By raising the cost of sugar domestically it has hurt the domestic confectionary industry," he says. "It's pushed a lot of candy makers over the border into Canada, and so there are jobs lost there."
But Snaith says in Florida there's an upside.
"Because we have the industry in our state and the industry benefits from these programs our state by proxy will benefit from them as well," he says.
Politicians benefit from Big Sugar's political generosity.
Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson is the Senate's second-biggest recipient of money from sugar growers this election cycle. He received $42,000 in contributions. His re-election campaign against Republican Congressman Connie Mack is considered key in determining control of the Senate. Mack received $29,000.
The state's other U-S senator, Republican Marco Rubio, got $5,000 this election cycle. In his recent autobiography Rubio, who was on the short list of vice presidential candidates, writes about the sugar support he received during his 2010 campaign.
"This is the most significant single area for growing food in the United States," he says.
At his South Florida farm Roth says that bounty is possible because of the region's massive sugar-growing infrastructure. The Everglades Agricultural Area turns out half of the nation’s domestic sugar cane harvest.
"California as a state grows a lot more food, but they grow it over a 400-mile area, from south California to north California," he says. "We're talking about farming in one area almost year-round. Nobody else does that."
Lawmakers have introduced multiple measures aimed at reforming or ending the sugar supports. But so far all of the measures have failed.
The Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill in June, protecting the sugar program. Both Nelson and Rubio voted to continue it.
But now that the Farm Bill is in the Republican-controlled House, the program may face more opposition. Either way expect Big Sugar's political spending to continue.
Support for this story also came from United Arts of Central Florida.
Visit the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting to read a print story and see a photo slide show from the Everglades Agricultural Area.