Clewiston is proudly called America’s sweetest town. But for the families that grow sugarcane in Florida, life hasn’t been too sweet lately.
They’ve felt the impact of Mexico illegally dumping highly subsidized sugar on the U.S. market, sending prices into a tailspin. They’ve seen the cost of labor and materials rise while the price they get for their sugar has remained stagnate. They’ve weathered damaging hurricanes.
And now, as Congress delays debate on the 2018 Farm Bill, they face uncertainty in next season’s crop.
“I need the Farm Bill to stop foreign governments from having a yard sale of sugar here in the U.S.,” says grower Ardis Hammock. “And I need a government to say we want our food produced in America.”
Like many in the area, Hammock’s family has been growing sugarcane for generations. Today, she farms with her husband, Alan, and son, Robert. They hope to pass the farm to the next generation.
Down the road from the Hammocks, grower Ronda Perry, and her husband Carl, farm in a fifth-generation operation with their children, Amy and Ross.
They also hope to pass the farm down. But it won’t come with a big bank account or assets. Their children will inherit a job in one of the world’s most volatile commodity markets.
“People think that we are making these big bucks,” she says. “We’re not. We are just barely scraping by. And you are not building a whole lot for the future. You are just paying your employees and getting by.”
Their stories are among those the American Sugar Alliance documented in Florida as part of a new series meant to show lawmakers what’s at stake as they debate the future of sugar policy.
From downstream businesses, like the one Frankie Montalvo runs with his father in Belle Glade, to high-tech jobs, like the one Matthew Miller does at US Sugar, the sugarcane industry has provided a way of life for families across south Florida.
Montalvo’s grandfather, Juan Montalvo Sr., came here from Cuba after Fidel Castro took power. He was a lawyer for an ice cream company by trade and had no background in chemistry. But he grew up working on race cars and understood machinery. So, he audited chemistry classes at night and used that knowledge to start Glades Formulating Corp. in 1965.
“You take a lot of pride in what you do,” Montalvo says. “You can put together your own product and go out there and know that you are helping a grower grow their crop.”
The sugarcane industry is the lifeblood of the local economy.
“It means everything,” he says. “Our business depends on the sugarcane growers in the area. All of our neighbors do as well.”
For Matthew Miller, the industry offered a career and a chance to raise his family in his hometown near both sets of grandparents.
He always thought he would have to leave to get a good job in information technology. He started at US Sugar after college and, 16 years later, he’s now a director at the company.
Since U.S. Sugar is a majority employee and charity-owned company, he’s also one of the company’s owners.
He helped build one of the world’s largest wi-fi networks, covering the company’s farmland and providing real-time data from tractors and train-loading stations.
“If it wasn’t for US Sugar then I would have definitely had to have left the area,” he says. “If we didn’t have the sugarcane industry here, Belle Glade, Pahokee, Clewiston, Moore Haven, all of those towns, I think they would just fold under.”
Paul Orsenigo and his son, Derek, have witnessed the growth from sugarcane first hand. Paul’s father, Dr. Joseph Orsenigo, a research scientist, was instrumental in creating the efficiency and industry-leading agricultural practices that have helped local farmers remain competitive.
They farm together today.
“I’m fortunate enough to have my son involved, which is a priceless part of our lives because sharing with him what I’ve learned as part of our succession plan,” he says. “We would like to see the sugar policy remain as it is. We’ve got a good stabilizing market presence, safety net. And it’s extremely important that it stays the way it’s been.”
Derek Orsenigo is proud of his family’s heritage and would like to see it continue.
“I’m a second-generation farmer. So, I would take a lot of pride in having a third generation come behind me and help out, whether it’s in the field, in the office, helping out in any way,” he says. “I would want Congress to know that the Farm Bill provides stability to families like us, which are your American farmers.”
Watch their stories, and the stories of sugar farmers across America, at facesofsugarpolicy.org.