The California sun sits high above the Imperial Valley’s luscious green fields. With weather that allows for year-round growing, this area has long been a hot bed for agricultural production.
Local farmer Von Medearis is out inspecting his sugarbeet crop, which he will begin harvesting in early April.
He removes an antique watch from his pocket. Just as he thought: It’s high noon.
Medearis checks his pocket watch often during the day – not so much for the time, but for nostalgia. The watch, an original Burlington Railroad timepiece, belonged to his grandfather, Elmer, who moved from Texas with the oil industry before starting the family farm in 1955.
His father worked alongside Elmer for years and was the first to plant sugarbeets at Medearis Ranches – a crop that now comprises half the farm’s 500 acres.
“My grandfather passed away in the early the ‘70s, my dad passed away a year and a half ago, and I just lost my mother about 3 months ago, so I’m running everything now,” he said. “I’m the ‘Last of the Mohicans’ in my family, but I’m rolling on as best as I can.”
But things aren’t rolling along so well right now.
Sugar prices collapsed after Mexico’s subsidized industry broke U.S. trade law and dumped surpluses on the market a few years ago – costing U.S. farmers $4 billion. Prices are starting to rebound but are still low. Meanwhile, the cost of inputs for the farm continue to rise.
For the last surviving member in the family business, the work is physically and mentally demanding. “I have a lot of energy, but I’m starting to feel it,” he explained.
Medearis is not alone. A few miles away, the Rutherford family faces the same economic pressures that have only intensified over the past 30 years.
“At one time up until the late 1980’s, we had beets growing from the Oregon border to California’s Central Valley, as well as here near the Mexican border,” explained Curt Rutherford, whose family has farmed in the area for nearly 100 years.
“Beets were being harvested 11 months of the year in various locations because the state had nine [sugarbeet] factories to refine sugar,” he explained. “Now we have one.”
The last remaining factory, Spreckels Sugar, is in Brawley. That’s where Curt and his wife, Suzanne, deliver their crop.
“Imagine if that went out of business and California was entirely out of the sugar growing business like Hawaii now is. It would be a tragedy,” he lamented.
Rutherford is referencing Hawaii’s once vibrant sugar industry that officially shut down in December 2016 amid low prices, increased transportation costs and pressure from subsidized foreign industries.
Sugar is widely considered the world’s most volatile commodity market because of widespread subsidization. The Rutherfords, like other American sugarbeet and sugarcane farmers, rely on a U.S. sugar policy comprised of import limits and producer loans to cope.
Because producers repay loans with interest and do not receive government subsidy checks, this policy historically costs taxpayers nothing.
Despite its no-cost status, the policy has come under fire from lobbyists for large food manufacturers who are angling to drive farmers’ prices even lower to boost corporate profits.
The legislation they are pushing would force the U.S. government to flood the market with subsidized imports and would prevent U.S. sugar producers from receiving the same government-backed loans they can receive today.
Rutherford believes this legislation would spell the end of sugar farms throughout the Valley and of Spreckels.
“There’s never been a beet factory that has ever reopened. If we lose that business, it does not come back,” he poignantly said.
A closure would be disastrous for Imperial County, which Rutherford said already has the state’s highest unemployment rate at more than 17%.
Thoughts like that keep him up at night, because he feels such a strong connection to the local agricultural heritage.
Rutherford’s grandfather, Walter Lee Rutherford, came to California in 1907 to help build the irrigation canals that would eventually bring Colorado River water to Valley farms. He later founded the family farm, which Rutherford’s father joined after World War II.
Everyone here has stories like that and are proud of the past. The question haunting the community now is what will the future bring. Will this generation of beet farmers be California’s last?
Time will tell. But in the meantime, Medearis – the self-proclaimed “Last of the Mohicans” – has some advice for the critics of American farm policy.
“If you lose the American farmer, then you’ve lost it all,” he concluded. “So the next time you gripe about the American farmer, just don’t do it with your mouth full.”