When Bobby Sparks looks out across his sugarcane fields and past the Rio Grande River, he can see Mexico.
Sparks, a second-generation south Texas farmer, is literally on the front lines of the global sugar trade. So, when Mexico was found guilty of breaking U.S. trade law and dumping mountains of subsidized sugar onto the U.S. market, it felt a little more personal to Sparks.
Fair trade is among the reasons he’s calling on Congress to back the no-cost sugar policy in the 2018 Farm Bill.
“We just need Congress to be on our side,” he says. “Sometimes they look at other nations and what’s going on with them and, of course, we need to provide trade with other countries, but we just want them to remember us when it comes to the sugar industry.”
Sparks’ story is one of three the American Sugar Alliance documented in south Texas to kick off a new series meant to show lawmakers what’s at stake as they debate the future of sugar.
The series will also feature the stories of farmers and workers in Louisiana, California, Michigan, Florida, Colorado, New York, Minnesota, Maryland, Idaho, and Nebraska, among other places. Those stories will live on a new campaign website, facesofsugarpolicy.org.
The series aims to bring the face of sugar production to Capitol Hill with a simple message: “Don’t cut my family out of the Farm Bill.”
Critics of American agriculture are already maneuvering to jettison the sugar policy from the Farm Bill and leave cane and beet farmers to fend for themselves in the world’s most subsidized and volatile market. The U.S. policy historically costs taxpayers nothing while providing access to loans for producers and setting import levels, among other aspects.
American farmers are among the world’s most efficient. But some communities have seen operations close in the face of competition from subsidized growers in other countries. In fact, the last sugar mill closed in Hawaii in 2016 after providing generations of good jobs.
In south Texas, hundreds of people work at the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers mill. Sugarcane means livelihoods for family farms across the valley and pumps money back into the local economy.
“Oh, it’s been huge,” Sparks says, who estimates that at least 500 locals have jobs because of sugar. “There’s truck drivers and there’s harvester drivers and there’s people that work in the mill. It just provides a lot of jobs to the valley.”
Like most in the Rio Grande Valley, Sparks runs a family operation. He farmed with his father and now farms with his son. He has a grandson he hopes might go into the business. He’s optimistic about the future even with all of the challenges in sugar.
“We hope it stays here,” he says. “We really need sugar. Who can see into the future, but we hope it remains and stays here for a long time.”