Sugar Beets in Saginaw
I love airports and airplanes. I love the feeling of being between places, in transition. And I love the anonymity — it’s the best of places for watching people, and also for meeting folks you might not otherwise meet on the street.
Yesterday, when I squeezed into Seat 14F (a window seat), it just so happened that the man already occupying the middle seat was a farmer. I noticed this, not because of any hint from his dress or demeanor, but because when he kindly got up to let me in, I noticed his bag — a freebie from some sort of national ag association.
So I asked him about it and he told me that he was a farmer who grew sugar. “Beets?” I asked, and his face lit up. “You must know farming then?” he said. “Well, kinda,” I shrugged, and told him where I worked, and about my brief farming experience.
We talked the rest of the flight — about his clever daughters and about how my parents met and about the time he took his son to the Rose Bowl. I found out that in addition to farming part-time with his son, my new friend was a crop insurance agent and a representative of the Michigan Bean Commission. He traveled around the world to trade shows and meetings marketing Michigan dry beans: azukis, great northern, black beans, to name a few. He had been recently to Cancun and Barcelona and was soon off to Paris.
Apparently, Saginaw is the capitol of dry beans and sugar beets in Michigan. Sugar beets, in case you didn’t know, make sugar — the regular white grainy kind you pour into your coffee or sprinkle on your cereal (do people still do that?). Saginaw Valley, where lots of these beets are grown, lies between the thumb and forefinger of the Michigan glove, about two hours by car from the metro Detroit airport. My friend explained that people grew sugar beets there because the processing plants were nearby in the thumb. This awesome article from MSU tells more about the history of sugar beet production and processing in the state.
Beyond beets, I also learned a little bit about crop insurance. My friend had been in DC to chat with folks at the USDA and on the Hill about the crop insurance business and the proposed cuts to crop insurance in Obama’s 2011 budget. It was fascinating to hear his perspective — “Why should the government penalize me for making a profit?” — and compare it to the perspective I share with the Obama administration and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition where I work:
From Obama’s 2011 budget proposal: “Crop-insurance companies currently benefit from huge windfall profits due to the structure and terms of the Government’s contract with the companies.” The Wall Street Journal reports that “a USDA study showed that a reasonable rate of return on equity for private crop-insurance companies is 12.8%, but the average now is 16.8%. USDA data show government payments to crop insurers have more than doubled in recent years, jumping from $1.8 billion in 2006 to $3.8 billion in 2009 while the total number of policies held by farmers has declined.”
Add to this the fact that my friend explained that until recently, when a former employee set up shop and became competition, he was the only insurer in his local area. I felt less sympathetic then to his side of the story, but it made me remember once again that in the end, farmers are businessmen and to him, these cuts might mean that he won’t be able to pay for his adventurous daughter to study abroad in Paris or to help his son buy land to start his own farm. And there’s the rub of government — how do you distribute resources equitably? How do you re-distribute when something’s not working — it seems much easier to give than to take something away.