ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
If you love sweets, this next bit of news may sound scary. The country's stockpile of sugar is shrinking, all because of a bad sugar beet harvest. Now, this is a problem that the government can solve. It's ready to open the doors to more imported sugar than the U.S. has seen in nearly 40 years. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: For Dan Younggren, who grows sugar beets in northwest Minnesota, 2019 was a year of plagues. First came the water.
DAN YOUNGGREN: Ten inches all the way up to almost 20 inches of rain.
CHARLES: The fields were so wet, farmers couldn't work in them.
YOUNGGREN: After that came the snowstorm that came barreling up off the West Coast.
CHARLES: And it was followed by a blast of cold. Everything froze. Farmers in his area had to abandon more than 100,000 acres of beets. And Younggren is now playing counselor to younger farmers, telling them not to lose hope or blame themselves.
YOUNGGREN: You did nothing wrong. You put the seed in the ground, and you matured it to maturity. And somebody else decided that you're not going to be able harvest it.
CHARLES: The effects are now rippling through the food industry. Last month, two big sugar producers announced they won't be able to deliver all the sugar they'd promised to candymakers and bakers, including Tippin's in Kansas City, which makes gourmet pies. Mark Boyer is the company's president.
MARK BOYER: Our director of procurement called and said, hey, I wanted to let you know we got a force majeure on sugar.
CHARLES: Force majeure is a legal term that companies use to explain that they can't honor a contract because of circumstances beyond their control, so Tippin's will have to find that sugar somewhere else. Boyer, though, sounds pretty calm about it...
BOYER: We're not freaking out about that just yet.
CHARLES: ...Because he knows there is a solution.
BOYER: There's plenty of sugar out there.
CHARLES: It's outside the United States in places like Brazil and Mexico. The U.S. government just has to let him buy it because sugar is different from most other foods. For almost half a century now, the U.S. government has been managing the sugar supply, varying the amount of foreign sugar that it lets into the country. It blocks the rest with high tariffs. It does this to keep sugar prices here relatively high and stable, which helps keep America's sugar farmers in business. Next year, the government will have to open the spigot and let more sugar into the U.S. - a lot more. Economists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture say meeting the demand will take close to 4 million tons of imported sugar, mostly from Mexico. The U.S. has not imported so much sugar since 1981, back when Americans consumed more sugar and less high-fructose corn syrup. Frank Jenkins, the president of JSG Commodities, says this switch to imported sugar will be complicated.
FRANK JENKINS: What we're trying to replace is refined beet sugar and all in the middle of the country - Minnesota, North Dakota, Colorado, Montana. Those states is where we lost all the production.
CHARLES: The sugar that's replacing it is raw product from sugar cane. It'll have to be processed in refineries along the coast in Savannah, Georgia, and Baltimore and New York. Those factories are not used to handling so much sugar.
JENKINS: So the cane refining industry in the United States is going to have to increase their capacity dramatically in the course of the coming year, certainly to historically unprecedented levels.
CHARLES: They'll have to run those factories all-out continuously and hope they don't break, and then they'll have to line up trucks to carry the sugar across the country. Food companies already are paying more for it, Jenkins says. But there will be sugar to buy.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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