It was the beginning of something big. George Wedgworth, founder, chief executive and president of the cooperative, said in his year-end report, “The fruition of many people’s dreams has finally come true.”
Many challenges lay ahead in 1962, but today the cooperative is a vertically integrated enterprise that takes sugar from the field all the way to the glass of iced tea.
Today’s cooperative is made up of 46 small- to medium-size grower members who produce cane on about 65,000 acres of fertile and productive South Florida land. The cooperative harvests, transports and processes sugarcane and markets raw sugar to American Sugar Refining Inc., which it owns with its partner, Florida Crystals Corporation.
ASR operates eight sugar refineries in five countries and markets more than 1,400 products in 99 countries under brand names such as Domino®, C&H®, Redpath® and Tate & Lyle®.
Wedgworth grew up on a Belle Glade farm and enjoyed problem-solving. At a young age, he envisioned a way for the area’s sugar farmers to work together to bring profits and success to themselves and to the community.
In the late 1950s, federal legislation allowed agricultural producers to collectively process, prepare, handle and market their products. In addition, with Cuba’s sugar quota canceled, South Florida producers saw opportunities on the horizon.
The Florida sugar industry also has a 21-station ambient air monitoring network that tests air quality throughout the growing region as well as neighboring cities to ensure that it is not violating any state, federal or local laws. It has never had a violation.
On the water side, Wedgworth, along with the Environmental Quality Committee of the Florida Sugar Cane League, hired a scientist in 1981 to assess water quality in Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.
“Dr. Earl Shannon cut his teeth working on Lake Erie,” Miedema said. “Then they created a special taxing district called the EAA Environmental Protection District. The farmers taxed themselves $5 an acre for all those years since 1989.” The assessment funded environmental research that resulted in the best management practices that continue to be implemented on farms today. It also help pay for the optimization of stormwater treatment areas and more. Wedgworth recognized that the farmers’ efforts needed to be credible, transparent and open to the government, Miedema said.
Other issues the cooperative has historically encountered have been fallout from farm bills and labor problems. Realizing that finding enough workers to harvest the cane would continue to be difficult, Wedgworth made it a priority to develop mechanical harvesting equipment that could effectively work on the region’s muck soil. He traveled worldwide to inspect the latest developments in the field, and soon a prototype harvester was built. The cooperative was the first sugar producer to move to 100 percent mechanical harvesting.
A great contributor to the community
The cooperative also has played a key role in helping to improve the community. “When an entity comes to us and says they have a need in the Glades, we know there are very few resources they can tap into. Our philosophy is to try to find a way to help rather than a way not to help,” said Miedema.
The cooperative has contributed to such diverse causes as the University of Florida Everglades Research and Education Center, a local hospital, schools, the Belle Glade library and the Association for Retarded Citizens of the Glades.
Miedema is especially proud of the company’s contributions to educational programs. “Just one example is a program called ‘Reading is Fundamental,’ where schools are required to get a matching community grant gift to purchase books that are given to children four times a year,” she said. “Many kids in the Glades wouldn’t have any books if not for that program. Education is important because you’re investing in the next generation.”
Learn more about the Sugarcane Growers Cooperative of Florida on its website and view the video created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first crop.