Sugar Cane League official discusses farm bill

Taxpayers spend about 3 cents per person per meal through the federal farm bill to ensure the nation’s food security, the head of the American Sugar Cane League said Monday.

Jim Simon, the Louisiana trade group’s general manager, told attendees at the weekly Press Club meeting downtown that a new bill, which failed on a House vote three weeks ago, is worth it.

Farmers are operating under an extension of the previous bill, about $12 billion of which covers the commodities generally thought of as farm products.

The bill, which he said is held up as Democrats and Republicans argue about cuts to the food stamp program, helps the sugar industry by setting a floor of 18.75 cents per pound of raw sugar. That’s the price at which mills can borrow money to lend to growers to plant and harvest their crop. The mills can pay it back in cash or in sugar, depending on the market.

“Sugar farmers do not receive checks from the federal government,” he said, noting that the league has resisted efforts to convert to a system of direct payments.

“When things get tight, direct payments are the first thing to go,” he said.

Simon noted that Louisiana’s congressional delegation is split on the farm bill.

Simon said the state’s sugar industry is far-reaching, with 53.4 million people eating Louisiana sugar.

Asked about other potential markets for Louisiana sugar, Simon said the economics just aren’t right to use sugar byproducts as a fuel source, noting that transportation costs alone make it unfeasible.

Rum, he said, is a “nice product” that is little more than a boutique niche in light of the fact that there were 1.7 million tons of raw sugar produced in Louisiana last year.

The sugar industry has a $3 billion impact on the state, Simon said, directly affecting 470 families, 11 mills and two refineries — one in Gramercy and one in Chalmette.

Simon said his trade group has stepped up its public relations efforts with a recent hire, and said its energy is focused on lobbying in Washington and conducting research at home. He said it takes 15 years to create a new variety of sugar cane from the 100,000 that now exist.

Despite its name, the American Sugar Cane League represents the Louisiana industry. Louisiana made up the entire domestic industry when the group was founded in 1922, but it kept the name even after Florida and Texas began growing sugar cane and Hawaii became a state.

“It plays well for us around Capitol Hill,” he said.

Editor’s Note: This story was changed on July 9, 2013, to correct the location of one of the state’s two sugar refineries as Gramercy.