The man is George Sinner, a sugar beet farmer in the Red River Valley of North Dakota, and he talks of the $58,500 loss he took on 450 acres of beets last year - $130 an acre. A friendly sort, he hopes for a government program ot "straighten out" the sugar market.
The company is Sucrest, an importer of raw sugar, and in its 19th floor offices on Wall Street it negotiates many of the contracts that bring shiploads of cheap, raw sugar - 600,000 tons of it last year - to its three refineries. "Doing quite well" and anxious over any government program that raises sugar prices, the firm has fixed a chary stare on potentially cheaper sugar substitutes.
The woman is Sister Anne Catherine, a Dominican rural missionary, and in the cane fields of Louisiana she spends her time and invests her life in trying to better the lives of the workers. Gently outraged at wages and conditions, she has friends in Washington trying to include her people in any program that helps sugar growers.
A triangle of interests in sugar and government.
It used to be called the sugar lobby; now it's the sugar lobbies. And how government responds will determine whether the rest of us pay higher prices for sugar and the products that use sugar, pay subsidies to farmers, and have a dependable supply of sugar.
And beneath it all is a hard irony for growers - if they get the higher prices they want, highly sweet syrup refined from corn becomes more competitive and cuts into the growers' and refiners' market. The nation's corn syrup factories have the capacity to step up production. They are just waiting . . .
What has happened is this:
Sugar prices hit the ridgepole in 1974 - 57.3 cents a pound in November for raw sugar and 63 cents a pound retail in December. Prices dropped somewhat in 1975, and in this January sugar sold for 11.5 cents a pound raw and 21 cents a pound retail. Presently the price of raw sugar is under 11 cents, and U.S. sugar growers find themselves selling for less than it costs to produce. The reason is that the world's supply of sugar far outstrips demand - by about 4 million tons.
At the same time, growers have lost the warm protection of the 40-year-old Sugar Act that limited cheaper imports in order to set a floor (but not a ceiling) on domestic sugar prices and provided payments to growers through a sugar tax. The act called for import quotas to be allotted to specific countries, and with the glut of world sugar, a high import quota was worth a great deal to the exporting nation. It was worth so much, in fact, that these nations hired lobbyists to wheedle the highest possible quotas for their clients from the congressmen on the Senate and House agriculture committees who decided how much each country could import to the United States.
But the House refused to renew the act; debate coincided with those record high prices of 1974 - when the U.S. sugar crop was worth $1 billion - and with the unraveling of the old alliance of growers, processors, refiners, users and labor.
So now it's growers and processors vs. refiners and users. Labor wants the growers to get something only if the field hands do, too. In public and private, they press their arguments:
Dick Blake of the American Sugar Beet Growers Association speaks briefly with Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland on behalf of growers, and tells Bergland's study group on sugar problems that growers need lower quotas and price supports.
Arnold Mayer of the Meat Cutters Union discusses the plight of field workers with Bergland and is told, by his account, of Bergland's sympathies toward the workers and limitations on his ability to help them.
Gregg Potvin of the U.S. Cane Sugar Refiners' Association tells Bergland's study group that raising sugar prices would cost consumers $225 million a year for each penny-a-pound increase, would send millions of additional dollars overseas and generally would be more expensive than a subsidy for U.S. farmers.
The sugar producers won the first round two weeks ago when Bergland's task force recommended limits on imports of 4.2 million tons a year and price supports to create a market price of 13 to 14 cents a pound. That would be better than the 10 cents-plus that growers get now but less than the estimated average cost of production of 15 cents a pound.
They lost the second round, however, when the administration decided on Feb. 26 to postpone any action until an interagency group can study various sugar policy choices, including those of the U.S. International Trade Commission.The commission determined Thursday that sugar imports, now about 4.5 million tons a year, threaten to do serious injury to the U.S. sugar growers. It will vote next Thursday on what remedies, such as quotas and duties, to recommend to President Carter.
Those seeking help for U.S. sugar producers argue that the country cannot afford to become dependent on others for sugar.
Others say that the country, which imports about 45 per cent of the 10 million tons of sugar consumed here yearly, will be dependent on world markets regardless, and that sugar-producing nations historically are less cartel-oriented than, say, the oil-producing countries.
One Agriculture Department economist says the United States probably could assure itself of a stable sugar supply by growing only 25 per cent of national needs - and using the sweet corn syrups as a hedge against any sugar cartel.
In a February report, Agriculture said that use of this high-fructose corn syrup (made by using enzymes on corn kernels and heating the mixture) has been slowed by low sugar prices. Factories that once produced the syrup round the clock are now sometimes shut down, waiting for orders, according to the report.
Refiners see corn syrup as more of a threat to the sugar industry than imports. Arguing against tighter import quotas, Potvin of the refiners' association says:
"At the very moment when the sugar industry is faced with severe losses to competitive products . . . it would appear counterproductive on behalf of consumers, refiners and producers to take artificial measures that could only accelerate those trends."
Potvin says that if the government wants to help growers, it should do so with direct subsidy payments which, he argues, would be cheaper than higher prices. It also would help to keep sugar and sweet corn syrup closer in price.
The Sugar Users Group - a collection of 15 baking, soft drink, canning and chocolate associations that use 60 per cent of U.S. sugar consumption in their products - said it opposes the 4.2-million-ton import quota and wants access to "all sugar supplies." Chairman Joe Creed says, "The sugar industry over the long term needs somewhat higher price levels. The average prices of the past two years have been high. (Now) the tendency is to call for the government to step in when it gets on the low side."
Whatever the government decides to do, if anything, the future of the nation's sugar industry is hardly unlimited.
Low prices keep sugar and corn syrup competitive but don't cover costs; higher sugar prices lead to increased use of corn syrup. Thus, a shrinking or no-growth industry.