Rick Roth, Florida Cane Farmer

“We live in the Glades, and my family drinks this water.” According to Florida sugarcane farmer Rick Roth, that’s one reason he and other cane farmers agreed to tax themselves for Everglades restoration.

Florida farmers imposed a voluntary tax on themselves in 1994 to supplement the state’s $685 million Everglades cleanup plan. Each year, Rick pays $25 an acre to help clean the water coming from his farm.

But Rick does a lot more than just open up his wallet come tax season. His farming practices are environmentally friendly, too.

Through a series of pumps on his farm, Rick moves water from wet areas to drier fields. This way, he’s not draining saturated cane fields and can reduce phosphorous runoff. And because cane requires only small amounts of fertilizer and can grow without insecticides or fungicides, it’s one of the most environmentally friendly crops in the world.

All told, Florida farmers have invested tens of millions of dollars in best management practices to improve on-farm techniques. They have spent more than $300 million to clean the water that leaves their land.

The hard work and investment is really paying off. Phosphorous levels in the water are well below state environmental requirements. Farm water is now the cleanest source of water entering the Everglades. Wading birds, Florida panthers, and crocodiles returned to gladly call the Everglades home.

“Environmental quality has really improved since my father first moved to Belle Glade in 1949 with nothing but a pickup truck, a vegetable planter, and his dog,” Rick said. “It makes me proud to think how clean things will be when my son, Ryan, takes over the farm.”

David Kragnes, Minnesota Beet Farmer

David Kragnes sits on the Board of Directors for a major American company. But David is different from your average corporate board member. David is a fourth-generation sugarbeet farmer from the small town of Felton, Minnesota.

David and his wife, Peggy, were among the first farmers in the region to join what would become America’s largest sugar cooperative–American Crystal Sugar Company. Buying into the cooperative was a huge financial commitment, and as David puts it, he literally “bet the farm it would succeed.”

Today, sugarbeet growers own the companies that process the beets they grow. In fact, farmer-owned companies account for 100 percent of America’s sugarbeet processing capacity.

The success of these companies not only affects the lives of farming families, these companies literally support entire communities.

The community where David and Peggy reside is in the Red River Valley. Home to more than 4,000 beet farmers, three farmer-owned sugar cooperatives, and seven sugar processing factories that employ thousands more, nearly everyone in the region is touched by sugar production. All told, sugar pumps more than $3 billion into the local economy and is the region’s second largest employer next to health care.

As David puts it, “This area rises and falls with sugar. From the farmers and factory workers, to local businesses, to the governments that depend on sugar’s tax revenue, this region would wilt if the farmer-owned processors went away.”

Charles Guidry, Lousiana Cane Farmer

Back when Charles Guidry was still a young, bright-eyed farmer in the 1980s, life was a lot different than it is today.

The Vietnam veteran from Erath, Louisiana, and his father were slowly increasing the size of the 100-acre farm that Charles’ grandfather started. Jerome, Charles’ young son quickly fell in love with farm life.

The Guidry team was good about keeping costs low, and the prices they received for their crop seemed fair.

Their world was full of promise. Things would soon change.

Sugar prices fell, input costs skyrocketed, and dozens of sugar mills across the state closed their doors never to reopen.

Times were tough, but the Guidry family was tough, too. And for a little while, things started to look up when Jerome came back to run part of the farm and help keep the family business alive.

Then on Sept. 26, 2005, the unthinkable happened.

Hurricane Rita flattened the Guidry farm. Sugarcane fields ready for harvest turned into lakes of murky salt water. Farm equipment was ruined. Both Jerome and Charles lost their homes. And more than half the year’s crop was destroyed.

The family waited and waited for federal disaster assistance to come to their aid, but the bureaucratic red tape was thick and their banker’s patience was wearing thin.

Charles and Jerome were faced with a tough decision. Either they sell the farm Willie Guidry started nearly a century earlier, or Charles had to forego his retirement plans and dip deep into personal savings.

Charles chose the latter, and the once bright-eyed farmer suddenly looked a little worn down. But as Charles likes to say, “Tough times don’t last, tough people do.”

Input costs are still high and two more hurricanes slammed South Louisiana in 2008. While Charles and other growers are worried about the effect of yet another disaster on their farming operations, Charles is optimistic about the future under the current Farm Bill.

Robert Green, North Dakota Beet Farmer

In 1928, Robert Green’s grandfather planted his first beet. Every year since then, the Green farm has planted and harvested sugarbeets.

Robert, his father Manuel, and his son Nathan, grow about 750 acres of sugarbeets on the same farm that his great-grandfather settled in 1883. Things have changed over the years. But, one of the constants has been a strong U.S. sugar policy.

U.S. sugar policy is simple and it works because it’s based on Economics 101—supply should equal demand.

Each year, the government estimates domestic sugar consumption and subtracts from that the amount of foreign sugar the U.S. is forced to import. U.S. farmers like Green supply the remainder.

By avoiding oversupplies, sugar prices stay stable. And, fair market prices eliminate the need for government subsidy checks to sugar farmers. That’s why U.S. sugar policy usually operates at no cost to U.S taxpayers. In fact, it operated at no cost in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Without an effective sugar policy, Robert’s not sure if he could continue to grow beets. Then again, Robert is not sure why anyone would want to get rid of U.S. sugar policy. As he puts it: “It works, farmers are happy, it’s a great deal for taxpayers.”

Ardis Hammock, Florida Cane Farmer

Ardis Hammock has sugar in her roots.

She grew up in Clewiston, Florida, which is known as “America’s sweetest town,” and after high school she began work on the family sugarcane farm with her husband, Alan. The farm, which was pioneered by Alan’s uncle, Ed Frierson in the 1920s, today consists of 700 acres of sugarcane.

Ardis is proud of what the family has built, but admits it has come with its share of challenges, ranging from stringent U.S. regulatory burdens to stagnant low prices and unfair trade from abroad.

Mexico, for example, has dumped subsidized sugar onto the U.S. market, creating record oversupplies and crushing U.S. prices. In fact, sugar prices are back to the same lows of the 1980s.

“That runs in sharp contrast to the input costs, which keep going up and up and up, squeezing profit margins to nothing,” she added, pointing out the ever-rising cost of fertilizer, labor, equipment and health insurance.

Despite the ups and downs faced by sugar farmers, both of their children, Robert and Sarah, have returned to the Glades. Robert, joined the farm in 2008, and he and his wife Ashley, son Case, and their second child arriving soon hope and pray to be able to sustain this precious way of rural life and their legacy.

Ardis noted that when Robert first saw their tax returns, it was a real wake-up call in terms of the economic situation he was embracing. “Robert looked at me and asked ‘how are you supposed to live off of this?'”

Her answer: constantly improve efficiency, manage your money wisely, look for off-farm income, be patient, and do the best with the cards we’ve been dealt—even if they seem stacked against us in some cases.

Despite it all, Ardis swears she wouldn’t change a thing. “This has been a great place to make a living, raise a family, and make a positive contribution to society,” she said. Her motto has been “Life isn’t a bowl of cherries—it is a bunch of raisins: raisin’ cane, raisin’ kids and raisin’ hope for a better tomorrow.”

Terry Jones, Wyoming Beet Farmer

In 1909, Leland Jones and his wife moved west in search of a new life. They found it on the farm they homesteaded in Powell, Wyoming. Nearly 100 years later, Terry Jones–Leland’s great-grandson–and his wife still grow sugarbeets on the farm.

A fifth-generation farmer, Terry knows the importance of his heritage. But he also knows that in order to survive in today’s marketplace, a farmer must constantly improve.

Since he began farming in ’71, Terry has whittled down his production costs until they are among the lowest in the world. In fact, U.S. beet farmers have the lowest cost of beet sugar production in the world.

Efficiency is vital, Jones says, because foreign competitors are subsidized and do not operate under the same strict environmental and labor guidelines as American sugar farmers.

U.S. sugar farmers do not receive subsidy checks from the government, and America ‘s sugar policy cost taxpayers $0 from 2003-2012. It’s only America ‘s efficiency in growing sugar that enables U.S. farmers to compete with subsidized foreign sugar producers.

Foreign subsidies have created a world sugar market that’s so unfair that 80 percent of the world’s sugar is never traded on it. Jones knows the only way to reform the world’s sugar market is to eliminate foreign subsidies. And the only way to eliminate subsidies is at the World Trade Organization’s negotiating table.

Someday, Jones hopes to pass his great-grandfather’s farm along to the next generation. But he admits this might be nearly impossible if America continues to trade away its domestic sugar market to less efficient, subsidized foreign producers in regional and bilateral trade agreements.