Belle Glade Sun

Sugar farmers push back on attacks from media

Farmers around Lake Okeechobee are attempting to push back against attacks from politicians and media outlets around South Florida.

After toxic algae blooms began to take over waterways in South Florida, some politicians running for election began to single out one scapegoat, ‘Big Sugar.’

During a campaign event in Fort Myers in early July, Republican Florida governor hopeful Ron DeSantis blamed sugar farmers for the algae crisis and claimed his opponent Adam Putnam was controlled by “Big Sugar.”

“I want to clean up the waterways here in South Florida,” said Mr. DeSantis. “He (Putnam) is captive to big sugar. He won’t do anything they don’t want him to do” — the implication being that “Big Sugar” is responsible for the algae crisis, and that their goal is for it to continue.

Opponents of “Big Sugar” claim that sugar farms around Lake Okeechobee are responsible for the increased phosphorus in the lake that blue-green algae feeds on, and water released from the lake by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is responsible for the both the algae crisis on the east coast of Florida and the red tide disaster on the west coast.

However, about 90 percent of the phosphorus load into Lake Okeechobee comes from the watershed north of the lake. A majority of the sugar farms in Florida are located south of Lake Okeechobee.

According to the South Florida Water Management District, only 4 percent of the phosphorus entering the lake comes from south of the lake.
University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) regional sugarcane extension agent Stewart Swanson thinks this disconnect between rhetoric and reality is a function of so few people being involved with agriculture.

“Everybody looks for a word that’ll catch everybody’s attention you know that’s how you get ‘Big Sugar’ and everything,” said Mr. Swanson. “But there isn’t that much acreage of sugarcane north of the lake. There’s a couple thousand acres near Highlands County, that’s about it. But in the watershed that runs all the way to Disney World, you have 140,000 acres of citrus. So it’s 140,000 acres of citrus versus about 2,000 acres of sugar cane that’s in the watershed north of the lake.”

Mr. Swanson also stated that sugar cane has the lowest requirements of nutrients for many crops grown in South Florida, only requiring a fraction of the nitrogen and phosphorus compared with a vegetable or citrus crop.

Neither Mr. DeSantis nor any of the governor hopefuls on the Democratic side have run ads attacking “Big Citrus.”

Judy Sanchez, senior director of corporate communications and public affairs for U.S. Sugar, says both U.S. Sugar and the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce are conducting public tours and bringing coastal residents out to tour sugar farms and processing facilities to get a firsthand look at how their food is grown and processed in hopes of telling their side of the story.

“The farming community is disappointed that farmers, who are natural caretakers of the their land and water resources, are being falsely accused of harming the coastal environment,” said Mrs. Sanchez. “These accusations absolutely come from misunderstanding, some of which has been deliberately spread by anti-farming activist groups. In 2018, communities south of Lake Okeechobee contributed barely 2 percent of the water into Lake Okeechobee, and that was for flood control for the city of Clewiston. It had nothing to do with protecting sugarcane farmers or farm land.”

In an article published in the Tampa Bay Times on Aug. 6, reporter Craig Pittman called out Adam Putnam for being the only candidate in the governor race to take money from Florida sugar companies in the midst of the algae crisis. In the article, Mr. Pittman correctly pointed out that Florida’s best management practices (BMP) program, which consists of cost-effective actions that agricultural producers can take to conserve water and reduce the amount of pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste and other pollutants entering our water resources, is a essentially voluntary program for most of the state. However, Ardis Hammock, co-owner of Frierson Farms located near Moore Haven, released a statement attempting to correct Mr. Pittman’s article in regard to BMP practices in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), where a majority of sugar farms operate.

“Mr. Pittman claims that the sugarcane farmers’ best management practices that have successfully reduced phosphorus by 57 percent are some sort of ‘voluntary’ program,” said Ms. Hammock in statement released by Florida Sugarcane Farmers. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Sugarcane and vegetable farmers in the EAA are required by law to reduce phosphorus by 25 percent annually, and they bettered that by more than twice what is legally required of them for more than two decades. Every single drop of water flowing off their land is cleaned, and the farmers pay 100 percent of the cost to clean the water flowing off their property — the vast majority of which flows south to the Everglades.”

UF/IFAS regional sugarcane extension agent Stewart Swanson backed up Ms. Hammock’s claims.

“In the entire EAA south of the lake, the BMPs are mandatory,” explained Mr. Swanson. “I managed a research station for the University of Florida in that area. I had an auto collector that collected water samples once every hour, and those samples were sent off to a lab and the phosphorous content was tested.”

Some of the attacks on the sugar industry in Florida from politicians and media have led to threats being made to the communities south of Lake Okeechobee. The sheriff’s offices in Glades, Hendry and Palm Beach counties are currently investigating some of the veiled threats that were made online.

Hendry County Sheriff Steve Whidden was quoted as saying the threatening language was posted by several vocal people online and was generally aimed at people living near Lake Okeechobee. One person criticized the sugar industry for causing the algae problem and declared they’d show up “2nd Amendment in hand.” Another said protesters should gather near the lake “to draw police,” “take physical action” on Lake Okeechobee and said “I got a welder and an AR (assault rifle) but it’s gonna take a big group to stand up to local law enforcement.”

“Agriculture is an easy target,” concluded Mr. Swanson. “Few people are involved in it anymore. I think nationally we only have half of one percent of people that are actually involved with agriculture. But I think we need to do as good a job as possible protecting our water resources here in Florida and I’ve spent years working in this program to do just that.”