By Juan Montoya
A few weeks ago I was driving north with my two boys on Military Highway (US 281) just past Veterans Memorial High School west of Brownsville, Texas.
On our left stretched the infamous Border Wall, a monstrosity of steel bars and electronically-controlled gates.
On the right stretched a field of sugar cane, the full green stalks waving in the gentle breeze.
Which of the two, I asked them, did they think was more wasteful? Was it the hideous Border Wall? Or the government-subsidized sugar cane crop?
Not a day goes past that we don’t hear of federal law enforcement agents busting some safe house in the Rio Grande Valley that had scores, if not hundreds, of undocumented immigrants waiting to make the trek up north and away from the border. How do those people get through the river, the wall, and then the trip across the inhospitable wild stretches past the King Ranch and beyond?
Former Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano testified before the U.S. Congress that despite the Wall and the additional hundreds of Border Patrol agents sent to the U.S.-Mexico border, the South Texas sector remains a sieve for both undocumented and drug traffic going north, and money and firearms going south.
Is the fence doing any good?
A 2009 analysis by the GAO found that the cost of pedestrian fencing ranged between $400,000 and $15 million per mile with an average of $3.9 million a mile. The price of less expensive vehicle fencing ran anywhere from $200,000 to $1.8 million a mile, for an average of $1 million a mile.
What about the sugar cane?
In 1998, James Bovard, in The Freedom of Journal Foundation, outlined the extent of this “welfare fraud” on the American taxpayer from just one industry – sugar. Since 1812, the government has “devotedly” jacked up prices to protect sugar farmers. At one time it was only sugar cane – as in the Rio Grande Valley case at Santa Rosa – but over time, sugar beets in the Midwest were also included. This in spite of the fact that there is a glut of sugar on the world’s market.
The U.S. government-imposed sugar import quotas have cost consumers and taxpayers the equivalent of more than $3 million for each American sugar grower.
Some people win the lottery, Bovard said, others grow sugar.
In fact, U.S. sugar prices have been as high as or higher than world prices for 44 of the last 45 years.
Bovard’s research indicates that while sugar sold for 21 cents a pound in the United States (18 cents in Novemnber, 2013) , the world sugar price was less than 3 cents a pound.
Each 1-cent increase in the price of sugar adds between $250 million and $300 million to consumers’ food bills. A Commerce Department study estimated that the sugar program was costing American consumers more than $3 billion a year.
Further, this subsidy, besides contributing to the obesity of people in this country and making fat cat ranchers rich, does not help the U.S. economy.
Bovard estimated that “the number of American jobs destroyed by sugar quotas since 1980 exceeds the total number of sugar farmers in the United States.
The Commerce Department estimates that the high price of sugar has destroyed almost 9,000 U.S. jobs in food manufacturing since 1981. In early 1990, the Brach Candy Company announced plans to close its Chicago candy factory and relocate 3,000 jobs to Canada because of the high cost of sugar in the United States. Thanks to the cutback in sugar imports, 10 sugar refineries have closed in recent years and 7,000 refinery jobs have been lost.
All this when at the same time, the United States has only 13,000 sugar farmers.
“We produce from $80 million to $100 million in revenue, most of which is spent in the Valley,” said Randy Rolando, president and CEO of RGV Sugar Growers. “It turns over four or five times in the (Texas) economy, so you gotta realize you are potentially dealing with a half a billion dollars in economic effect with the mill. So we are trying to be good neighbors to everyone in the community and at the same time keep the industry alive because it does provide a lot of jobs and it does put more money into the economy.”
The Texas A&M Research & Extension Center says that the sugarcane industry in Texas is located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) in the counties of Cameron, Hidalgo, and Willacy, and is the fourth largest source of U.S. sugarcane.
Sugarcane is produced on 43,000 acres, with 1.5 million tons harvested annually. Sugarcane growers in Texas organized the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, Inc. as a farmer-owned cooperative. Approximately 140 farmers grow sugarcane today. Sugarcane, the study found, provides a $64 million economic impact for the state.
According to its website, the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers (RGVSG), Inc. is a member-owned cooperative comprised of over 126 growers in a three-county area. Together, members produce more than 1.5 million tons of sugar cane each year, yielding nearly 160,000 tons of raw sugar and 60,000 tons of molasses. RGVSG is one of the top 10 producers of raw sugar in the United States.
RGVSG employs up to 500 workers in a normal producing year, which culminates with a harvesting period from October to April. Annual payroll of the cooperative exceeds $12 million, with an annual operating budget of more than $32 million.
In Texas, where more than 8,000 jobs rely on a strong U.S. sweetener industry, RGVSG alone accounts for up to 11 percent of the total gross revenues produced by Valley agriculture every year. Member growers utilize over 40,000 acres of rich South Texas farmland in the cultivation of sugar cane crops.
This year, they say that because of the drought, mill experts said this year they expect to fall about 25,000 tons short of the average 150,000 tons of raw sugar produced annually, a cost differential of about $10.5 million.
That’s sounds really good, no?
Perhaps, if you’re a farmer. But in 2007 the sugar mill workers walked out on strike demanding higher wages. Once harvesting begins there is no stopping, with crews harvesting around the clock. Once the cane fields are scorched by burning off hte excess leaves, the harvest crews are sent in with harvesters and trucks. The work is dirty, dangerous, and requires long stretches of monotonous work with heavy machinery. Truck drivers and harvester drivers were paid $9.60 per hour; tractor drivers $8.65 per hour.
The workers’ wanted an increase to $15 per hour for the truck and harvester drivers and $13 per hour for the tractor drivers.
What did the subsidized farmers say?
They said no and started advertising for workers to replace the strikers.
I am reminded of the biblical story about the king who forgave one of his subjects a debt and then that same subject went and prosecuted someone who owed him less.
Bovard concludes: “There is no reason why the United States must produce its own sugar cane. Sugar is cheaper in Canada primarily because Canada has almost no sugar growers — and thus no trade restrictions or government support programs. Paying lavish subsidies to produce sugar in Florida (or Texas) makes as much sense as creating a federal subsidy program to grow bananas in Massachusetts. The only thing that could make American sugar cane farmers world-class competitive would be massive global warming.
If Dagoberto Barrera and other immigrant bashers want to spew venom in the newspaper letter section about welfare chiselers they can start with the sugar farmers in Santa Rosa. Then they can go after their fellow Republicans who want even more of the Border Wall built along the border.
After all, these were the same folks who – while squashing a strike by truck drivers who wanted a slight hourly wage increase this past summer and continuing to employ the undocumented in the fields and slaughterhouses in the Midwest – continue to laugh at them all the way to the bank.