WINDSOR — Though Fred Walker also cultivates Coors barley, corn, alfalfa and pinto beans, the 200 acres of sugar beets he grows each year are vital to his farming operation.
Knowing that his son, 35-year-old Greg Walker, will likely take over the farm someday, Weld County Farm Bureau President Fred Walker wants to preserve his sugar beet operation — something he says may not be possible if Congress ratifies the Central America Free Trade Agreement.
“There are a lot of sugar beets grown in northeastern Colorado,” Walker said. “It really does impact the sugar industry.”
Walker is one of the driving forces behind the county’s break with the national Farm Bureau organization over CAFTA, a trade accord that would lift import restrictions and tariffs on $33.4 billion worth of goods traded between the United States and Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
The Colorado and Weld County branches of the Farm Bureau oppose CAFTA, saying the state’s $29 million sugar beet industry will be compromised if more foreign sugar is allowed to further flood the oversupplied U.S. market.
Like producers of other agricultural commodities, the country’s fewer than 6,000 sugar producers walk a delicate balance between supply and demand. Even a small increase in sugar on the market, according to industry experts, can cause prices to fluctuate wildly and force farmers to store the sugar at their own expense.
CAFTA is awaiting final Congressional approval, but a vote has not yet been scheduled.
“It would devastate our industry,” said Alan Welp, who farms 600 acres of sugar beets near the northern Colorado community of Wray. “We have asked Congresswoman (Marilyn) Musgrave to oppose CAFTA because of the damage it does to the sugar industry in her district.”
Doug Rademacher, president of the St. Vrain Sugarbeet Growers Association, said Colorado sugar beet farmers already struggle to compete with producers in California and Texas, which have better soil and climate for agriculture, and that CAFTA would damage the local sugar beet industry hard hit by several years of drought.
Weld County, which lies in Musgrave’s 4th Congressional District, is the second-largest sugar-producing county in the Western Sugar Cooperative among Wyoming, Montana and Colorado.
“Sugar is our cash crop,” said Rademacher, a third-generation farmer. “It would hurt us. ... The last few years have been really tough on us because we haven’t been growing the crops we need to make money. We haven’t had water, enough water. Without water, you can’t grow.”
Welp acknowledges that CAFTA may have benefits for other Colorado commodities, including wheat and cattle, but said that allowing any more foreign sugar into the market will mean farmers here will not be able to plant as many acres of the crop.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only about 1 percent of Colorado farms in 2002 cultivated sugar beets. That amounts to about 312 sugar beet farms in Colorado, compared with the 5,600 cattle ranches in the 4th Congressional District.
Colorado’s top agriculture industries — including the $2.9 billion cattle and $200 million wheat industries — stand to benefit from CAFTA, according to Musgrave, who represents northeastern Colorado.
“As child, I grew up with my parents working in the sugar beet campaigns, so I understand how significant the beet industry has been for many years in the 4th District,” Musgrave said in a statement Friday. “CAFTA is favorable for Colorado overall, especially for agriculture. I have been working in Washington to make sure the concerns of Colorado’s sugar beet growers are addressed.”
Musgrave has petitioned trade ambassadors and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns to implement appropriate safeguards to prevent predatory dumping practices that would harm Colorado sugar producers.
Jenn Ooton can be reached at 303-684-5295, or by e-mail at email@example.com.