John Hundley knows a thing or two about growing sugarcane in south Florida.
He grew up working on his father’s farming operation, which he started managing in 1965.
He started Hundley Farms, Inc., in 1969 with his wife Patsy. Today, it’s a multi-generational operation, with daughter Krista, son-in-law Eric Hopkins and son John Scott Hundley all working on the farm.
They grow sugarcane, sweet corn, rice, tomatoes, squash, cotton, peanuts, soybeans and assorted winter produce.
And, like his father, he’s been a leader in the industry nationally.
When George H. Wedgworth stepped down as chairman of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, Hundley stepped up to lead the organization.
He’s been on the board since 1986 and has served on the executive committee for 16 years.
Like others in Florida, he’s cautiously optimistic about the harvest following Hurricane Irma, which left stalks bent and broken across the state.
Recovering from the storm is just one example of the necessity of America’s no-cost sugar policy, Hundley says.
American sugar growers are among the most efficient in the world but they still must contend with a world market that’s been distorted by highly subsidized growing operations across the globe.
Hundley has seen the changes growers have made in the U.S. to adapt and compete – giving U.S. consumers prices that are as low as they were when President Jimmy Carter was in office.
“In cane, there has been significant improvement in varieties, cultivation techniques and, of course, all of the crop protection products that are available have improved,” he says. “The harvesting process has improved through mechanization. And milling is better.”
Farmers have made financial investments in all of these improvements. But instead of better prices for a better product, they face prices that have remained virtually unchanged for 40 years.
That’s where America’s sugar policy comes in, Hundley says.
“If it’s operated correctly by USDA it costs the public nothing,” he says. “People assume sugar farmers get subsidy checks, but that’s simply not true.”
Farmers do get access to loans they repay with interest to cover the capital needed to grow the crop and store sugar until it’s needed by customers. There are also limits on the amount of subsidized sugar from abroad that can unfairly flood the U.S. market.
All of which is critically important to an industry that supports 142,000 American jobs and has an annual economic impact of $20 billion.
And the policy offers American consumers some of the lowest food costs in the world while providing a safe and secure supply of a key commodity.
U.S. sugar policy is spelled out in the Farm Bill. Congress has started debate on the 2018 bill and will continue to discuss it this fall and into next year.
Hundley and other farmers are making their voices heard in Washington, and across the country, as lawmakers take up the Farm Bill – some for the first time.
“One of the challenges is going to be educating all the new members of Congress about what it’s all about,” he said. “Having a sound and a strong agricultural sector is critical to this country and critical to our national security.”
For the sake of American consumers and farmers, let’s hope Congress listens.