Part 1 in a Three-Part Series
October 23, 2017
Hurricane Irma may ultimately be blamed for $100 billion in damage across Florida, making it one of the costliest storms in U.S. history.
Irma’s 100 mile-an-hour winds whipped along the west coast of Florida, destroying homes and businesses and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power and water. It then tracked north and produced flooding rain in Georgia and the Carolinas.
Sugarcane farmers in Florida braced for the worst as the storm flooded fields and bent stalks that were only weeks from harvest.
In Belle Glade, farmer Dennis Wedgworth, like many others in the storm-battered community, has surveyed his cane crop as best he can. Wedgworth Farms produces mostly cane, though he rotates with rice and leases land to vegetable growers for corn and lettuce.
He had harvested about a third of his rice crop before the storm. Since Irma, rice yields have been down by about half.
The Wedgworth family has farmed in Florida since 1932. His father started growing cane in the early 1960s after volatility in the vegetable market pushed him to find something more stable.
Wedgworth took over management of the farm about 15 years ago and he’s seen big storms before. Most notably, Hurricane Wilma left destruction across the cane farming community.
But the last dozen or so years have been quiet without major storms. Last year’s sugarcane harvest was good and Wedgworth was expecting another good yield this year.
Harvest begins Oct. 24.
“We are cautiously optimistic that the damage we received is not going to be as much as we originally anticipated,” he says. “But we won’t know until we start cutting cane.”
Of special concern is the seed cane. That’s the full stalks of cane farmers plant, which sprouts to grow future crops.
The storm’s winds lodged, or laid down, cane stalks, adding cost to this year’s harvest and possibly damaging seed cane and resulting yields for years to come.
In fact, Wedgworth and others in the region will need to harvest seed cane by hand, which means more labor will be needed at a time when workers are scarce.
Storms like Irma, and the added costs they bring, are just some of the many risks in producing sugar.
The global sugar market is considered the world’s most volatile because of the high level of foreign subsidization. Brazil, for example, doles out more than $2.5 billion in sugar subsidies a year and now controls nearly half of the entire export market.
Farmers like Wedgworth have little protection from foreign market manipulation beyond no-cost sugar policy.
And that policy’s continuation, he says, will be essential to Florida cane farmers rebounding from this year’s hurricane season, as well as his sugarbeet brethren in the Midwest, who are dealing with challenges of their own.
“The policy works,” he says. “And if it’s run properly there is no cost to the taxpayer and consumers get a great deal.”
That’s something he’s hoping Congress will remember as it debates the 2018 Farm Bill.