Saturday, April 17, 2021

“Big Sugar”…Who Are They?




This is a three part series about the sugar industry of central Florida and the history they have created regarding the use of Everglades’ lands. Look for parts two and three in the October 13th and November 24th issues of Coastal Breeze News.

For thousands of years the rains falling north of Lake Okeechobee would create an overflow of water that saturated land to the south. This continual, slow moving sheet moved over the prairies, eventually meeting with Florida Bay. For more than 5,000 years this pristine area was home to numerous and unique plants and animals. Aided by a system of aquifers to help purify these waters, it was a paradise which included early Native Americans. As civilization made its way south of the lake, the U.S. government, with continued urging by lawmakers in our state, began creating canals and dredged the area to drain the wetlands just south of Lake O.



A major investor, excited about the Florida population boom, made his way here and had a vision. The abundance of land and a growing nation enticed General Motors executive Charles Mott to form U.S. Sugar in 1931. Florida’s climate is not perfectly conducive to growing this crop but the drained lands and the application of tremendous amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus made Mott’s dream possible.

Add one more ingredient and the mix would be perfect…government subsidies. The Sugar Act of 1934 allowed for payment up to $180 million a year to help produce this product. Mott was on his way but it would take two more decades for “Big Sugar” to really blossom.

In 1959 the Cuban Revolution occurred and the sugar supply from that country stopped. Additional incentives were now being offered to growers in our country to produce more cane. The Army Corps of Engineers drained more land to keep the supply in check with demand. Sugar was now had a Florida green light to run and run fast.

When Castro took over Cuba after the revolution people there began to flee to the United States. One gentleman, heir to the Gomez-Mena sugar empire, made his way to Florida at the same time that more land was being dredged. Alfonso Fanjul bought a farm and expanded his holdings over the next few years.

As our nation continued to grow, so did the need for more of the sweet stuff. In order to protect our domestic growers the government here began to assign quotas to other sugar-producing nations. One of the largest of these was the Dominican Republic. Sensing opportunity the Fanjul family scooped up a rival sugar producer there for a great price. They would now be the largest exporter of Dominican sugar.

The table was now set. Charles Mott and the Fanjul Family collectively controlled more than 75% of the sugar industry in Florida.

Florida is number one of the top four primary sugar-producing states, generating about $1.5 billion in total income each year. Florida also accounts for half of all sugarcane acreage in our country and employs more than 18,000 workers full time. The income stream for U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals was very, very sweet.

Draining the Everglades, fertilizing the soil with too many nutrients and farming the lands would cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem. Politics and dollars would be needed by Big Sugar to save their lands. Join me for part two of this series in the October 13th issue of Coastal Breeze News.

Bob is the owner of Stepping Stone Ecotours, conducting walking tours in the Big Cypress Preserve. His pictorial book about wildlife in South Florida, “Beyond The Mangrove Trees” is available at several area locations or at Bob loves his wife very much!

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