Billings Gazette: Politics get sticky for sugar beet farmers


Things could get a little sticky in Washington, D.C., for sugar beet farmers this year, a key agriculture lobbyist said Thursday.

“2013 will be a very difficult year in the political environment,” said Ruthann Geib, American Sugar Beet Growers vice president. “We must pass a five-year farm bill, and it has to include the current sugar policy. We have to work to balance our market, achieve compatible trade agreements, defend biotech and manage our risks.”

Speaking to farmers during the Montana/Wyoming Sugar Beet Symposium in Billings, Geib said sugar producers narrowly escaped defeat on a couple of key issues in 2012. Namely, they managed to survive challenges last June on the Senate floor to U.S. sugar policy.

U.S. policy is to prevent a flood of imported sugar from driving down the price of sweetener produced by American beet and cane farmers.

Forty countries export sugar to the United States, including Mexico, which under the North American Free Trade Agreement sold 1.4 million short tons of sugar to United States buyers in 2012, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The food industry lobby would like the policy eliminated from the next five-year farm bill because it would lower the cost of the raw ingredient. In 2012, the affordable-treats argument gained traction with lawmakers, although sugar producers say as an ingredient sugar contributes only pennies to the cost of something as sweet as a candy bar.

As the Senate prepared to pass its version of the now-stalled 2012 farm bill, lawmakers allied with the food industry and political action committees like Club For Growth, attempted to amend the Sugar Program out of the bill. The amendment came within a handful of votes of succeeding, Geib said.

The challenge for sugar beet farmers is unpacking the complex details of both sugar imports and the role sugar plays in the cost of food, which isn’t easy, Geib said.

“Sugar policy is complicated. You don’t want to go to the Hill with a beet truck full of information, back it up to the staffer’s desk, hit the hoist and let it go,” Geib told the framers. “They’ll be overwhelmed. We have to boil these things down to a very simple message.”

Passing a five-year farm bill will be the main focus of 2013 for most farm groups. Last year, the Senate passed its version, but the House did not, despite its Agriculture Committee approving a version with a strong bipartisan vote.

Geib said the House farm bill stalled because it was in for a fight over food stamps on the House floor, where conservative Republicans hoped to separate the agriculture elements in the bill from the nutrition portion, which includes food stamps. The nutrition portion accounts for more than 80 percent of farm bill spending. The marriage of nutrition programs and agriculture has in the past ensured that urban lawmakers with constituents using food stamps would support farm programs that had little impact on their districts. It also ensured that farm state lawmakers would back nutrition programs.

Democrats weren’t going to support deep cuts to nutrition programs, Geib said.

There are several weighty political issues ahead of the farm bill this year, including gun control, budget cuts and tax reform. Those issues will have to advance before the farm bill makes it to the front of the line, she said.

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