Before visitors put on hardhats and headsets for a behind-the-scenes tour at Michigan Sugar, they’re introduced to the industry with a short film featuring local growers.
Rita Herford and her family are among the voices in the film that tell Michigan’s proud history of growing sugar beets.
The industry started here at the dawn of the 20th Century and has helped generations of farm families make a living.
Today, Michigan Sugar pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy each year. The cooperative is owned by farmers like Herford and her family. It’s a point of pride when she walks into the local grocery store.
“I love being able to go to the grocery store and look on the shelf and say ‘Hey, that could have come straight from my farm,’” she said. “It’s just awesome to know I had a part in that.”
Herford’s family has grown sugar beets for generations. Her father died when she was five years old and her mother stepped in to take over the family farm. She later remarried and teamed with her new husband in a move that has allowed Herford and her brothers to continue the family tradition at Gentner-Bischer Farms.
“Sugar beets have always been around,” she said. “It’s our staple crop. It’s just part of who you are.”
Her story is among those the American Sugar Alliance documented in Michigan as part of a new series meant to show lawmakers what’s at stake as they debate the future of sugar policy.
Not far from Herford’s farm, Darrin Siemen lives in the house he grew up in and farms his family’s land in Harbor Beach.
Like Herford, he went to college and then decided to come home and continue his family’s tradition.
“Sugar beets are our way of life,” he said. “There’s never been a question of if we are going to grow them, but how we grow them and how we can do better.”
He farms with his wife Barbara and has three children who are all helping out on the farm today.
“As I have kids now, that’s part of the whole legacy, to bring the next generation on board,” he said. “And that’s probably why we work as hard as we do, and do the things that we do, to provide more opportunity for the next generation.”
Tony Moeggenberg has seen that hard work in the field become a valuable product from his position as Director of Logistics and Planning at Michigan Sugar in Bay City. Most consumers probably don’t realize the role sugar producers play in keeping costs low, he said.
Sugar is a seasonal product with busy periods during summer and the fall baking seasons.
But retailers and food-makers don’t take delivery of an entire season’s worth of sugar all at once.
They expect the sugar producing industry to warehouse the product until it’s needed.
Grower-owned cooperatives like Michigan Sugar absorb the cost and run the risks.
“We incur costs,” he said. “It costs money to move this product from our facilities to outside storage.”
Not far from the Michigan Sugar factory, Peter Maxwell farms with wife Allyson in the small community of Hope. He also farms with his father, Clay Maxwell; uncles, Scott and Dirk Maxwell; and cousin, Rhett Maxwell.
Maxwell, a young grower in the region, has seen the industry evolve to compete in a highly-subsidized world market. Farms are not only bigger now, but more efficient.
That gives him hope for the future of the industry in Michigan as Congress takes up the next Farm Bill and the U.S. sugar policy.
“We have amazing capacity and abilities in our factories,” he said. “We have seed technology that we can only imagine what we are going to be doing in 10 years with productivity. It’s so important that we protect our industry.”
Herford, like others in Michigan, said prices have been low lately. A few years ago, her family didn’t make money on beets.
She hopes Congress will understand that Michigan families rely on sugar policy to stay in business and pass down the farming tradition
“I just want Congress to know that having a market where our sugar beets can be sold, and having a base price for us, really means a lot,” she said. “I don’t know what our farm would look like without sugar beets on it. I hope to never find out. And just to know that there is some stability there for us is reassuring and we need that.”
Watch their stories, and the stories of sugar farmers across America, at facesofsugarpolicy.org.