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No Sweet Deal 

Louisiana sugar farmers fear that CAFTA could lead to the end of both a state industry and their way of life.

There's no liar like a sugar farmer in December telling you that he has plenty of cane for the mill.

That's the wisdom of Anthony Joe Judice, a 40-year veteran of sugarcane farming from New Iberia. As both a farmer and an officer of the Cajun Sugar Cooperative, Judice knows that the rhythm of the fall grinding season is set by the quotas established for growers at each of the mills. Once the mills start cutting and mashing the cane and evaporating juice into syrup, they must have an adequate amount of cane to keep running night and day. That means that each farmer must stick to his allotted quota each day during the grinding season. A farmer who comes up short of his quota might finish his season early; by the same token, though, he might leave the mill without an adequate supply of sweet stalks to grind. And that would leave his fellow farmers in a lurch.

Mike Comb, assistant general manager of Louisiana Sugarcane Cooperative (LASUCA) in St. Martinville, has another way of putting it. "When grinding starts, you don't get a day off," says Comb. "It goes from start to finish."

Louisiana's 690 sugarcane farms account for about 16 percent of the total sugar from cane and beets produced in the United States. In southeast Louisiana, though, sugar is also something else: a network of families and farm heritage bound by a common set of rituals. In autumn and early winter, those rituals become pronounced as farmers harvest just enough cane each day to make their quota at the mills. These are the days of smoke-hazed landscapes tinged with the acrid smell of cane being burnt to remove excess leaves in the fields, of slow-moving tandem wagons and highway shoulders littered with broken stalks. Day and night, Louisiana's 15 mills chuff marshmallow-white clouds of steam and smoke from boilers and evaporators. Each evening finds wagons and trailers loaded with cane lined up by the dozens in the yards outside these sugar processing plants. By dawn, the wagons are empty again, ready to return to the field for another load. It goes on relentlessly until the harvest is done, with some mills continuing into this month.

Sugar grinding colors the winter landscape around southwest Louisiana as surely as turning maples color autumn in New England. In towns like New Iberia and Breaux Bridge, sugar farms also provide a web of income and employment. The Louisiana State University (LSU) Agricultural Extension Service estimates that the direct economic-value impact of the crop exceeded $2 billion across the state last year. That figure begins to take on heft as you travel roads like La. 182 in St. Martinville, passing farm equipment dealers and small stores offering plate lunches.

All that may be in jeopardy thanks to an array of cultural and political changes afoot. For starters, the amount of farmland set aside for sugar is dwindling fast, giving way to a construction and development boom across southern Louisiana. Even more dramatically, a set of free trade agreements could potentially wipe the industry off south Louisiana's map.

In December, during the last round of talks on the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), U.S. trade representatives unexpectedly put sugar back on the table, opening the way to agreements that would make it legal for participating countries to import more sugar into the United States. That, in turn, will drive down the price that Louisiana farmers receive for their crop. Though the details on sugar aren't finalized, the agreement could potentially allow participating countries -- currently Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala -- to increase the amount of sugar they export to the United States by 2 percent each year. Charlie Melancon, general manager and president of the American Sugar Cane League, says that could eventually result in an additional 300 tons of sugar being imported into this country.

Melancon and representatives of the LSU Agriculture Center and the Louisiana Farm Bureau still haven't seen the final agreement. Nonetheless, Congress is expected to receive CAFTA sometime in February, with 90 days to consider it. The proposal will be made public sometime between now and then, though members of industry sector advisory committees are already fretting that they'll have less than 30 days to respond to the text of the proposal with comprehensive written reports. According to the rules of "fast-track" trade authority granted to the president, the bill cannot be modified by Congress, only passed or rejected. That's true even though negotiations with Costa Rica, which walked out of CAFTA negotiations in early December, were still underway as of presstime. As of early January, the Dominican Republic was showing signs of resisting the agreement as well.

Imports would drive down the price of cane and possibly trigger provisions in the 2002 Farm Bill that would force sugarcane farmers to cut their production, says Melancon. More immediately, the state's overall economy would suffer as lower prices depress the value of its more than 450,000 acres of sugar cane. Instead of $1,200 an acre, says Melancon, land will drop to about $500 an acre. That, in turn, will cause a financing crisis as landowners struggle to add more collateral to their outstanding loans.

"Any removal of the quotas or tariffs would devastate the industry, whether it's for one, three or five years," says Melancon. If the deal goes down, he continues, bankers will have to start calling in loans. At press time, Louisiana's congressional delegation was still trying to get a meeting with President George Bush to discuss the free trade deal's impact on sugar.

Louisiana sugar farmers felt strongly enough about CAFTA that they left their fields and came to New Orleans on Dec. 19, just days after a draft agreement of CAFTA was signed in Washington D.C., to protest outside the Port of New Orleans. Inside, U.S trade representative Robert Zoellick, whose office is responsible for negotiating trade agreements on behalf of the United States, indicated that the sugar farmers' loss was the longshoremen's gain, according to Melancon. Port of New Orleans executive director Gary LaGrange echoes Zoellick's position, saying that the passage of CAFTA would be a rosy development for the port. "From our vantage, there's very little or no sugar coming through the port of New Orleans," says LaGrange.

At the same time, LaGrange foresees CAFTA resulting in a rise in imported fruits, vegetables and finished goods, as well as an increase in exported commodities. He points to a recent study projecting a six-fold increase in cargo and trade across the Southeast due to pending free trade agreements with Latin America. There's no reason why the Port of New Orleans shouldn't experience its own similar increase in business as a result of the agreements, LaGrange says.

The United States doesn't subsidize sugar farms directly, though farmers are eligible for special agricultural loan programs. The government has kept the price of sugar stable for the last two decades by carefully limiting the amount of sugar that can be imported. Those limits have kept the domestic price of sugar even at about 22 cents a pound, says Ben Legendre, an LSU sugar cane specialist. That price has already wavered as a result of additional sugar being imported under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), hovering just above 20 cents a pound this fall. The United States currently limits imports of sugar to 111,000 metric tons per year.

Sugar is Louisiana's highest earning row crop, outstripping cotton, corn and beans. The 2002 crop gained the state an estimated $548 million in farm income and processing. The total area under cultivation in the state's 25-parish sugar zone, a triangle that stretches from Cameron Parish in the west and Rapides Parish in the north to Lafourche Parish in the east, tops 450,000 acres. In all, Louisiana has accounted for between 15 and 20 percent of the overall national sugar production from cane and beets, and between 35 and 40 percent of the total sugarcane production, in each of the last eight years.

Imagine a pile of sugar weighing a million tons. That's a little less than what Louisiana has produced each year since 1995.

Most Louisiana sugarcane farmers run family operations on fewer than 1,000 acres. "There are no alternative crops. These farmers would need to find employment in another industry," says René Schmit, the LSU Agricultural Extension Agency's county agent for St. Charles Parish. Most local sugarcane farmers incur about $700,000 in costs on an annual basis, and there's simply no way to parlay that debt into another industry, Schmit says. "If this comes about where the sugarcane industry is removed from Louisiana, this will be one of the largest disasters to ever hit our state," says Schmit.

"Right now we can compete against other farms, but we cannot compete against other farmers' governments," Melancon says.

Not every farmer is so concerned. Off the record, several farmers in St. Martin and Iberia parishes grouse that government programs, like the recent disaster relief package granted to farmers for hurricane losses in 2002, have long kept inefficient farmers in business. Free trade enthusiasts, meanwhile, champion CAFTA for potentially driving down the price of foods that use raw commodities like sugar. "What we're talking about is a substantial increase in the value of family budgets -- in real wages, effectively," says Dan Ikenson, a trade policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based CATO Institute, a conservative think tank that opposes trade protection. CAFTA's critics say that position presumes that lower sugar costs will translate into lower prices for products that include sucrose sugar -- something they dispute will happen.

Burning was the first job LASUCA's Mike Comb ever had as a child, working on his father's farm in Breaux Bridge. "I love that smell," says Comb, breathing deep as he steps outside the LASUCA office. A field just across La. 347 is burning, and the wind shifts to drive the cloud straight into him. Beyond that, the overall landscape is powdered with a pall of man-made smoke. Several doctors and public health officials have decried the burning as a cause of allergies and other respiratory problems, especially in children. But to lifelong Louisiana sugarcane farmers, the sweet smoky smell of burning is simply part of who they are.

Fewer people understand farming now, though, says Comb. Fields that were once planted with cane have been cut up into subdivisions, even along rural roads like 347. People complain about slow-moving sugarcane wagons and the mud that farm machinery leaves on the roads during harvesting season, as well as about the smoke. "Their parents' generation understood farming," says Comb. "I guess these people now are out of touch."

The LASUCA mill, rising from an 1860 brick foundation, is a mish-mash of old and new buildings. Its basic process for removing sugar from cane is basically unchanged from the procedure developed by Etienne de Bore in 1795. He and another 19th-century inventor, free man of color Norbert Rillieux, are at the heart of even the most modern sugar mills. Entering the mill, one passes through every register of sweet smells, from burnt sugar to simple syrup to watered-down molasses. In mid-December, the mill was processing 10,500 tons of sugarcane a day, grinding between 450 and 475 23-ton loads from the fields through a series of knives before separating the pulpy "bagasse" -- the fibrous byproduct left behind after the cane juice is pressed out -- and removing water from the remaining syrup. Once grinding season starts, this mill, like every Louisiana mill, runs night and day.

It takes a lot of beating to separate sugar syrup from the cane. Here, it's done with a series of six giant grinding rollers where battered cane is rinsed with cane juice from further up the line. Then it's on to the evaporators, where water is removed from the juice in a graduated process developed by Rillieux. A team of Central American, South American and Caribbean workers attend the most delicate part of the process, the sugaring pans where sugar crystals are grown in the syrup. In the last station inside the mill, a slush of sugar crystals and molasses, known as "massecuite," is sloshed into a series of centrifuges -- a spinning barrel that basically resembles a clothes dryer on its side. Each centrifuge whirls the massecuite, forcing the liquid molasses out through the side and turning the brown slush into white crystals. From here, it's a short trip to the sugar trucks that will carry the raw sugar to the Colonial Sugar Refinery in Gramercy. Trucks also wait outside to ship the molasses, much of which will be used to feed cattle in the Midwest.

The mills' five boilers are 80 percent fueled by bagasse. Two of LASUCA's boilers were part of the original 19th century mill. Their iron doors swing open to reveal blazing infernos while masked workers rake the coals. Nearby, high-tech gauges calibrate the temperature and density of syrup as it passes through various chambers inside the mill and govern its motion automatically.

Any drop in price that comes about as a result of free trade won't be passed on to the consumer, Comb muses. Whatever happens with CAFTA, he thinks granulated sugar will probably remain at around 39 cents a pound at the supermarket.

What could change, Comb fears, is that all these machines, and the entire process, could fall silent.

"I bought all this," says Anthony Joe Judice, gesturing at his open, freshly harvested sugarcane field just outside New Iberia, "to keep it from becoming that."

Judice is standing in a flat expanse of a just-burned sugar field at dusk. Across the narrow blacktop road is an expanse of tidy houses -- "that" -- their lots cut from a former field. Judice is concerned that the area is losing farmland, which in this region means that some of the richest alluvial soil in the world is being tucked away under lawns and foundations. And this particular soil in this particular climate was made for sugarcane, Judice says.

The American Farmland Trust, a national nonprofit organization devoted to keeping farmland open, backs up his contention. According to their research, Louisiana paved over 83,700 acres of high-quality rural land between 1992 and 1997. That's 27,790 acres per year. Louisiana's rate of loss during that period was 13 percent faster than the previous five years. That disappearance is helped by the fact that so few Louisiana sugarcane farmers own their land. About 90 percent of the land in sugarcane is rented, a holdover from the plantation system in which huge tracts were controlled by absentee landlords.

Judice is one for whom loss of farmland, like the loss of the sugarcane industry, is not an acceptable option. His family has been here longer than sugarcane, which was introduced to the region by the Jesuits in 1751. His German ancestors began farming sugarcane here more than 200 years ago, on a land grant made by the Spanish crown that stretched from New Iberia to the grounds of the LASUCA plant in St. Martinville. The land he currently works with his nephew and four sons includes part of that original grant. If there was ever such a thing as a heritage farmer, it's this man.

The Judice family has a history of finding creative ways to not only survive, but thrive in the business. In 1963, the family's Judice Brothers Farm had a bumper crop. That's when a representative of the mill with which they usually worked came by two weeks before harvest. "He said, ŒYou guys got 1,500 tons too much. We don't care what you do with it, but we don't want it.'" The family narrowly averted a disastrous loss by hauling their cane to a mill in Franklin, but they also made sure it never happened again. The next year they helped found Cajun, one of five farmer-owned and farmer-operated mills in the state. This year Cajun processed more than a million tons of sugarcane into an average of 3 million pounds of sugar a day, employing 80 full-time workers and 40 seasonal workers to do it.

Now Judice is studying other strategies to help the industry survive. He already practices sustainable agriculture, a commonsense approach that allows him to limit inputs. Instead of automatically using herbicides and chemical fertilizers, he feeds the soil with cover crops and uses integrated pest management. When he uses chemical pesticides, he does so selectively.

Judice is also working with the Southern Mutual Aid Association, a rural assistance program based in New Iberia, to explore options for forming a "land trust." Land trusts can keep land out of development, generally by using donated or public funds to buy the right to develop a piece of property. By holding the "development rights" in trust, a land trust could keep valuable farmland like the acres owned by Judice from being turned into strip malls and subdivisons. But Judice is a rarity among Louisiana farmers because he owns his own land. Absentee landowners might not be as motivated as he is to keep good land in farming.

But it's the talk of alternative uses for sugarcane, particularly the fibrous bagasse byproduct currently used to fuel sugar mills, that really gets Judice excited. Already he's been involved in the decision to buy a new boiler for Cajun. That bigger and more powerful boiler will be able to burn enough bagasse to supply electricity as well as fire for the plant. One day, he thinks, the mill might even be able to sell its power to consumers. A plant that compressed bagasse into particle board just closed, but he's hopeful that that industry has a future, too. "Add value to what you do. That's the idea," says Judice.

Helen Vinton, assistant executive director of Southern Mutual Help Association, says that the free trade situation is like a tidal wave that farmers should have seen coming since the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) more than ten years ago. The trick, she says, is learning how to swim in the tidal wave. "Our friends who are legislators should have been in our corner, the state should have been in our corner, businesses should have been in our corner, " says Vinton. Apart from nonprofits and some commodity groups, she says, small farm businesses and family farms have had no strong representatives. "We should've already been out there looking for alternatives -- alternative crops, added value on crops that we have and local marketing."

Dr. Yan Chen, a researcher at the LSU Agricultural Experiment Station who specializes in value-added products made from sugarcane, says there are some exciting possible uses for the commodity. He believes there are uses for sugarcane far beyond sweetening. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy are working together to enhance the implementation of the Biomass R&D Act of 2000; developing sugars as a platform for alternative energy is a national research priority.

But those wrapping up their work in the field this month worry that such schemes will be too little, too late. "Will there be opportunities for alternatives?" says St. Charles extension agent Schmit. "Yes. Will there be an industry to supply those alternatives? That's the question."

click to enlarge TERRI FENSEL
click to enlarge The Louisiana State University (LSU) Agricultural - Extension Service estimates that the direct - economic-value impact of the crop exceeded $2 - billion across the state last year. That figure begins - to take on heft as you travel roads like La. 182 in - St. Martinville, passing farm equipment dealers and - small stores offering plate lunches. - TERRI FENSEL
  • Terri Fensel
  • The Louisiana State University (LSU) Agricultural Extension Service estimates that the direct economic-value impact of the crop exceeded $2 billion across the state last year. That figure begins to take on heft as you travel roads like La. 182 in St. Martinville, passing farm equipment dealers and small stores offering plate lunches.
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