A Sweet Beet to Beat Cancer


Renville, Minnesota is a small town that’s had a big impact on the fight against cancer.

For a decade, community members and employees of the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative (SMBSC) have been hitting the pavement at the Running to a Sweet Beet 5K to raise money for research and supportive care for cancer patients.

SMBSC is based in Renville. They’re the largest employer in the county and they support 5,200 jobs throughout the state, generating more than $800 million in economic activity according to a University of Minnesota study.

They take their commitment to creating more resilient communities seriously, contributing to efforts to help secure a strong foundation for the families that call southern Minnesota home.

“We recognize the strength of our cooperative depends on strong and healthy communities,” said Liza Fagen, a SMBSC employee and a member of the Running to a Sweet Beet organizing committee.

Over the years, SMBSC has invested in community health and service organizations, county fairs, local fire departments and ambulance teams, education opportunities, agricultural activities, and more.

Twenty years ago, a group of SMBSC employees decided that they wanted to utilize the strong community networks they had forged to make an impact on cancer. They started with small fundraisers at SMBSC and quickly became involved with the Renville County Relay for Life, raising money for the American Cancer Society.

In 2010, SMBSC decided to organize the first-ever Running to a Sweet Beet 5K, held in conjunction with Renville’s town celebration, Sugar Beet Days. Fifty-three people participated in the first race.

SMBSC is the sole sponsor of the event, financing the cost for a successful race and ensuring that all registration fees are donated to initiatives to fight cancer. Race proceeds are given to Renville County Walk in the Park, formerly Relay for Life.  Renville County Walk in the Park supports cancer patients locally in Renville County through emotional and supportive services as well as Hope Lodge.

What started as a modest community event has grown into a powerful force for a stronger, healthier community.

“The race draws together a diverse range of people: serious runners and casual walkers, seasoned athletes and young kids. It is truly inspiring to see how SMBSC has joined hands with our community to help support our friends and neighbors who are battling cancer,” Fagen said.

More than 260 people walked, jogged and ran to the beat during the 2019 race. Top runners in all divisions receive gift bags filled with sweet treats made with Minnesota-grown sugar during the closing ceremony. SMBSC’s 10th anniversary Running to the Sweet Beet 5K raised more than $6,600, bringing the total contributed to cancer initiatives from the race event alone to nearly $44,000 over ten years.

All told, SMBSC has contributed more than $154,000 to the fight against cancer.

Those donations will provide real support to a mother or father, son or daughter, brother or sister in their fight against cancer.

SMBSC hopes to run – not walk – to a cancer-free future. What a sweet day that will be.

U.S. Sugar Provides Backpacks and School Supplies to Thousands of South Florida Schoolchildren

Pencils. Glue. Scissors. Notebooks. Each item packed carefully into a backpack by a volunteer.

Thanks in part to U.S. Sugar, thousands of students in Florida started school in August 2019 with brand-new backpacks filled with the supplies they would need for a successful year.

U.S. Sugar partnered with several community organizations, including the Clewiston Library, the City of South Bay, the Palm Beach and Hendry County Education Foundations and the Palm Beach and Hendry County Sheriff’s Departments to provide more than $110,000 in backpacks and school supplies to elementary school students in the Glades farming communities.

Approximately 70 percent of schools in Palm Beach and Hendry Counties are designated as Title 1 schools, meaning they serve a high percentage of students from low-income families.

These Glades communities are vitally important to U.S. Sugar. The Glades communities in western Palm Beach County are agricultural towns that many sugarcane farmers and workers call home, while U.S. Sugar is headquartered in Clewiston, in Hendry County.

Investments in education through projects like U.S. Sugar’s backpack initiative to provide school supplies to help the next generation be successful will help sustain their local communities.

Brannan Thomas, U.S. Sugar’s Community Relations Manager and a native of Belle Glade, helped lead this project and was proud to give back to the community where he went to school.

“U.S. Sugar is proud to donate filled backpacks to our students and help support the important work our teachers are doing to educate the next generation of Floridians,” Thomas said. “Our families live, work, and play in these communities, which means that our success is intrinsically tied to their prosperity.”

Thomas and other U.S. Sugar employees were able to deliver hundreds of backpacks to children at the Clewiston Library and South Bay City Hall as well as to school leaders at Eastside and Westside Elementary Schools in Clewiston.

According to the Florida Department of Education, during the 2018-2019 school year, 100 percent of students at each of these schools qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.

National surveys place the cost of buying school supplies at an average cost of more than $100.

“Notebooks and pencils are necessities for any back to school list, and every student deserves to have access to the supplies they need to succeed in the classroom,” Thomas said.

Pencils. Glue. Scissors. Notebooks. These are more than just supplies checked off a list.

They’re tools that will help secure valuable education opportunities for thousands of children in South Florida.

Texas Sugar Producers Tip Their Hat to Sugar Policy

Deep in the heart of Texas, approximately 112 farmers grow sugar cane across 41,000 acres along the banks of the Rio Grande river.

These farmers and their farmer-owned cooperative, Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, are important members of the Rio Grande Valley community and a critical part of the Texan economy. Unfortunately, they are all that is left of the once-booming sugar industry in south Texas.

Sugar production in the Lone Star State has a rich legacy spanning more than 200 years. However, economic and political hardships in the early 20th century forced the closure of the last of the sugar mills. In 1973, a group of farmers worked together to re-establish a sustainable sugar industry in the Rio Grande Valley.

Today, the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers are not only keeping this historic industry alive but also working to sustain the local economy. And America’s sugar policy has played a critical role in allowing sugar production to once again take root in Texas.

During the 2017/2018 growing season, their mill in Santa Rosa, Texas processed almost 1.7 million tons of sugar cane, producing more than 165,000 tons of raw sugar and nearly 60,000 tons of molasses. In fact, the mill produces enough sugar to provide an entire year’s worth of refined sugar to more than 7.7 million consumers.

And all of the hard work that goes into harvesting and processing that sugar certainly has a sweet effect on the economy.

According to Sean Brashear, President and CEO of Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, the sugar cane industry in Texas contributes $140.3 million annually to the state’s economy and supports an estimated 801 jobs statewide.

From the fields to the mill and everywhere in between, more than 300 people are directly employed by the sugar industry in the Rio Grande Valley. And hundreds more have jobs thanks to the economic impact generated by the mill and the farmers who supply it.

“We are proud to contribute to the rural economies that rely on the sugar industry,” Brashear said. “America’s sugar policy allows our farmers and workers to withstand a global market that is defined by foreign subsidies and depressed prices. Continued support of this policy will ensure that the legacy of sugar farming in Texas can survive.”

Just like sugar farmers and workers across the country, the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers are continually striving to become more efficient producers.

Farmers utilize GPS technology to minimize the use of diesel, fertilizer and pesticides and the Rio Grande Valley mill uses leftover cane from the milling process, called bagasse, as fuel to generate steam and electricity. When operating at peak efficiency, the mill creates enough electricity to power the nearby town of Santa Rosa.

The positive effects of the Texan sugar industry extend far beyond the state. Raw sugar is sold to a refinery in Louisiana and shipped by barge via the intracoastal waterway, bringing economic benefits to communities along the Gulf Coast on the way.

Many of the Rio Grande Valley farmers share a deep connection to this land. Board Chairman Leonard Simmons’ family has farmed in the Rio Grande Valley for 100 years.

“It’s important for us to share the story of sugar in the Rio Grande Valley,” Simmons said. “Producing sugar means supporting our families, contributing to our communities, being responsible stewards of the land, and continuing this heritage for the next generation.”

And Simmons credits Congress for supporting the sugar industry in Texas by approving a 2018 Farm Bill that maintains a strong sugar policy.

“Congress firmly rejected cutting our families, farms and livelihood out of the Farm Bill. We hope they will continue to stand up for sugar producers in Texas and beyond.”

Thankfully, the sugar industry in Texas is no longer simply a part of history.

Union Workers to Congress: America’s Sugar Policy Sustains Local Communities

Cornelius Fowler’s message was simple when he walked the halls of Congress this summer.

“If you kill the root, you kill the tree,” he said, “and the sugar industry is the root of the tree in my community.”

Fowler drives a truck hauling farm equipment for the Florida Crystals Okeelanta Sugar Mill in western Palm Beach County. His father and grandfather worked at the mill.

He was among the group of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) members who traveled to Washington recently to explain why America’s sugar policy is critical to rural communities.

“If there’s no sugar policy, we have no future, no job, no home,” Fowler explained.

The no-cost policy is part of the Farm Bill, which Congress passed last year. It exists due to subsidies and trade-distorting policies around the globe, and it helps U.S. farmers and sugar businesses survive amid price volatility.

The American industry employs 142,000 people in 22 states in mostly rural communities. Direct annual wages and benefits for the industry add up to nearly $1.2 billion – a figure that increases to $4.2 billion when economy-wide impacts are included.

Fowler is raising 5 children with his union job at Florida Crystals. It offered him job training, good pay, a pension and benefits. His son, the oldest, is considering medical school.

Union members met with about 30 lawmakers or their staff representatives during the visit. Most of the lawmakers were freshman and new to sugar policy.

“A lot of people don’t get to visit Congress,” Fowler said. “Being able to sit down with them and tell them your story. Tell them exactly what your community, and your job, means to you.”

Joaquin Almazan, another IAM member and worker at the Okeelanta Sugar Mill, was on the trip with Fowler. He’s a second-generation machinist, joining his father in the business. His son is now working at the mill.

“It has meant a good living for us,” he told the members he met with. “We have been able to put my daughter through college and buy a house. We have good health care and money for vacations. It’s everything to us.”

U.S. sugar policy, Almazan said, creates sustainable communities around Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. The money from sugar jobs is spent locally at other business and funds public infrastructure like schools and hospitals.

His sister works for a local business that might not exist without the good-paying union jobs at the mill.

“If I lose my job, she probably loses hers because most of us in town can’t afford to support local businesses without a sugar paycheck,” he noted.

Similar sentiments were shared by Carol Howard, a union worker with U.S. Sugar’s railroad that hauls sugar from Florida fields to factory. She joined Fowler and Almazan on Capitol Hill.

“I followed in my father’s footsteps when I started at the company more than a decade ago. Now my son now works here, and I have several family members working at U.S. Sugar,” she said. “Sugar has sustained my whole family, and it’s important that I help support the policy that sustains the industry.”

A strong bond with a unionized workforce isn’t isolated to cane companies, either. Half of America’s sugar comes from sugarbeets and 100 percent of beet factories are unionized. In addition to IAM, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; International Longshore and Warehouse Union; Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union; Service Employees International Union; United Food and Commercial Workers International Union; Sugar Workers Union; and International Longshoremen’s Association all represent employees in the sugar industry.

These union workers receive strong salaries, a competitive benefits package, tuition and certification reimbursement, and diversified, safe workplaces.

It’s no wonder then that the international president of IAM – as well as leaders from several of other unions – weighed in so aggressively during Congress’ recent Farm Bill debate.  As IAM explained in a letter to all House members:

U.S. sugar farmers and sugar workers deserve a level playing field and should not be forced to compete with farmers subsidized and supported by foreign governments whether by direct loans, cash incentives or foreign ethanol programs.

U.S. sugar policy supports good union jobs in rural and urban areas of the country. The U.S Congress should not support outsourcing these jobs to countries with low labor and environmental standards.

Simply put, organized labor’s message is crystal clear.  U.S. sugar policy maintains good-paying jobs at home and that’s key to the survival of our communities.