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The Sunshine Economy

Bittersweet: The Sugar Industry In South Florida

Tom Hudson

Talking about sugar in South Florida is like talking about politics and religion in polite company. Few people are without strong opinions about the sugarcane farms stretching across the eastern Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee. The industry is a mix of government price policies, environmental regulations, trade practices and the demand for food.  

Rick Roth grew up in Belle Glade, where the town motto is "Her Soil is Her Future." He is a second-generation sugarcane farmer. Roth has begun transitioning the day-to-day responsibilities of his 2,800 acres of cane to his son. But that hasn't cooled Roth's passion for the crop nor his spirited defense of it. Don't tell him the government price supports for sugar are subsidies.

Credit Tom Hudson
Everglades CEO Eric Eikenberg at his desk in Palmetto Bay. Does agriculture have a place in the Everglades? "Today, yes," he says.

Sugar growers don't get checks in the mail from the federal government if prices drop, he says. 

It's true. For several iterations, the Farm Bill (including the recently approved Agricultural Act of 2014) guarantees sugar growers the government will loan them money at 18 3/4 cents per pound of sugar, effectively giving growers a minimum price. Roth argues that price support is necessary to ensure a steady supply of cheap food for America.  

Eric Eikenberg is familiar with the power of the sugar industry. He was the chief of staff to Governor Charlie Crist. Today, Eikenberg is CEO of the Everglades Foundation, a group whose vision is to restore the Everglades to a "natural state." He acknowledges agriculture has a place in the Everglades today, and he does not think they will "ever have the opportunity" to restore the area to its pre-20th century state. However, he is among those pushing for cleaner and more water for the Everglades.

Roth and Eikenberg illustrate the strong opinions Floridians have about sugar and the sugar industry.

Meantime, Cuba's one time sugar power has been depleted and all but deleted. As recently as the 1980s, Cuba was among the top producers and global exporter of sugar. That changed with the fall of the Soviet Union. Exiles like Juan Tomas Sanchez hold out hope for resurrecting the cane fields and sugar mills of Cuba in the generations to come.

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.