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American Sugarbeet Growers Association preparing to educate Congressional newcomers on farm bill

With heavy turnover among Congress and Congressional staffers, the ASGA is getting ready to educate people on how the farm bill and U.S. sugar policy works.

A man stands at a podium in front of a group of people watching him. A green and black-colored curtain is behind the man.
Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, addresses the organization's annual meeting on Feb. 1, 2022, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The current farm bill expires in 2023, and farm groups are gearing up to advocate for their priorities as the discussion regarding the next bill heats up. But one major challenge for farm groups will be the tremendous amount of turnover since the last farm bill was passed.

Zack Clark, director of government affairs for the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, said at least 185 current members of the U.S. House and 17 Senators have never voted on a farm bill, a number that could easily grow to 200 House members and 20 Senators after this fall’s midterm elections. Add to that heavy turnover of Congressional staffers, of which Clark once was one, who have been “flooding out the door,” tired of dealing with COVID-19 issues, the fear and death threats that came with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, long hours and “terrible pay.”

A screen shows a man at right, with photos of members of Congress at left who have launched attacks against U.S. sugar policy.
Zack Clark, director of government affairs for the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, addresses the organization's annual meeting, pointing out past attacks on U.S. sugar policy. Photo taken Feb. 1, 2022, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

“It’s a real challenge,” said Clark, who appeared at the American Sugarbeet Growers Association annual meeting in Scottsdale via Zoom from Washington, D.C., while awaiting the birth of his child.

Despite the challenges, the sugar industry considers many in leadership in both parties and both chambers to be “friends of sugar,” and feels it has a strong story to tell about the success of the U.S. sugar program.

Members of Congress, like the rest of the U.S., have realized issues within the supply chain since the COVID-19 pandemic began, said Luther Markwart, executive vice president of ASGA.

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“So I think the Congress comes back at the farm bill and says, 'What is our food security? What is our supply chain resilience?'" Markwart said. “And as we’ve told many members of Congress, you’ve had a lot to worry about these last few years. Sugar has not been one of them, simply because you’ve got a farm policy and a trade policy that works to make sure we take care of consumer needs. And I think that story plays very well as we go forward.”

And while there is a need to educate members of Congress and their staff members, Clark said ASGA is well situated, with this being the ninth farm bill Markwart has worked on. Markwart explained that in his experience, there is no perfect bill but a back and forth of trying to get the best bill possible.

“We can’t always get what we want or what we need,” he said.

Evolutionary not revolutionary

A man stands at a podium smiling while another man looks on, seated to the right.
Jim Wiesemeyer, vice president of farm and trade policy at Informa Economics, addresses the 2022 American Sugarbeet Growers Association annual meeting on Jan. 31, 2022, in Scottsdale, Arizona. At right is Dan Younggren, ASGA past president.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

The farm bill is the five-year plan for farm programs, but as Jim Wisemeyer, vice president of farm and trade policy at Informa Economics, told the ASGA annual meeting, “it’s really a conservation and food programs bill,” with more of the budget going into nutrition and conservation programs than into agriculture and farm safety net programs.

While the bill expires in 2023, it’s as likely as not that the current bill will be extended rather than a new bill passed. As he and Clark explained, Republicans, with projections of taking over one if not both chambers, have every reason to slow down the process while Democrats have every reason to speed it up while they’re in power.

The process of writing a new farm bill, Markwart explained, is more “evolutionary than revolutionary,” building on what has worked and not worked in the past. The U.S. sugar policy works, he said, explaining that almost 3 million tons of sugar are stored in the country until needed, using $1 billion in government loans that are paid back with interest.

“It’s pretty simple. It’s great for the taxpayer. It helps the farmers. It helps the consumers. That piece of the puzzle works,” he said. “But we have to look at all of those things and say, for the next five years, what we have, will that continue to work or will we need little tweaks?”

Challenges to farmers right now include rising input costs and interest rates, which can make it hard to “get our income out of the market,” Markwart said. And there always are things to defend, including crop insurance, which tends to have good support. Wiesemeyer said there is a move toward a more permanent disaster assistance program, which is something to watch and study.

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A man in a dark suit, a white shirt and a red tie stands at a podium in front of a green curtain, with the American flag behind him.
Luther Markwart likened the American Sugarbeet Growers Association's annual meeting being held in person after a virtual 2021 meeting to a family reunion. Photo taken Feb. 1, 2022, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

Conservation is expected to be a big part of the next farm bill. Sugarbeets, like other crops pulled from the ground, including potatoes, carrots, onions and sweet potatoes, do not have the same no-till options as other crops and often require some soil disturbance to be planted in northern climates. But biotechnology, including Roundup Ready technologies, have provided a “quantum leap in what we used to do in terms of benefits to the environment,” Markwart said. He anticipates more technological advancements could improve the environmental footprint of sugarbeets even more, including breeding advancements that help beets be more resilient to pests and diseases without pesticides.

Another challenge was presented by Barbara Fesco, branch chief of the Commodity Analysis Division at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who appeared at the meeting via Zoom. Fesco, said beet sugar production’s share of the market is down slightly over the past five years, and cane sugar’s price often surpasses that of beet sugar. She sees increasing imports of organic sugar as one of the culprits.

Farmer voices are important to Congress, Clark said, noting "everybody loves farmers.” He said farm bill field hearings are expected to be held outdoors across the country beginning this spring.

“Maybe we need to tell them other things happen for farmers in the spring,” he quipped.

This year’s ASGA fly-in will be held virtually again. Markwart stressed the importance of regular communication from farmers to the mostly urban audience of Congress.

“The voices of American agriculture have to be there all the time,” he said. “It’s not once every five years, I’m going to go tell them about this, about sugar policy or farm policy. You constantly have to do it so as you get to a farm bill, you’ve got a base that is fairly well educated”

That base, for the first time in many farm bills, will not include former Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who Wiesemeyer called the “sugarbeet watchdog.” But Markwart said Peterson still is involved in advocating for sugar, as are members of Congress from both parties and from sugar-producing regions across the country.

At the end of the day, Congress wants to know how the sugar policy works for consumers. And that’s a message Markwart said is easy to tell.

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“That’s what members of Congress (ask): How are you doing to take care of my constituents?” he said. “And we’ve got a great story to tell.”

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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