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George Wedgworth: Fifty years of progress for Florida sugar cane

• The original co-op sugar mill was designed to grind 5,000 tons of cane daily. This year, an exceptionally good season during which the co-op broke 10 production records, the mill averaged 23,000 tons daily and turned out a record 26,000 tons on one particularly busy day. The mill operates 24 hours a day during the harvest season, which usually runs November through March.

As executive offices go, George Wedgworth’s is rather modest. Located in a rear corner on the third floor of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida’s administrative building adjoining the big mill, it has the requisite pair of chairs and a desk with the usual clutter.

The photos and paintings on the wall mostly feature the mill itself. A collage shows the sugar refineries the co-op co-owns in the U.S. and around the world.

At the edge of the far wall is a small window with a view of the parking lot, and beyond that, the outskirts of Wedgworth’s hometown, Belle Glade, Fla.

The co-op recently celebrated running its 50th crop through the mill. Wedgworth has been the boss here for every one of those crops, and then some.

Two years before the first cane was milled here, he convinced 15 other farmers to join him in a co-op to produce sugar. Some had previously grown the crop, but acreage was severely limited by how much the Glades area’s two existing mills could handle. Wedgworth Farms, for example, then grew 200 acres of sugar cane; now it has 5,000 acres of it, and cane is its primary crop.

Wedgworth had been growing vegetable crops like celery, but disliked being vulnerable to both wintertime freezes and market vagaries.

“I could see that sugar could be the answer to a lot of problems, but we had to get volume,” he says. “I sat down with the president of U.S. Sugar, which dominated the business here then, and pleaded with him to take more volume from us. He wouldn’t do it, and that’s what prompted us to start the co-op.”

Financing difficult

Then 31 years old, Wedgworth led the effort to organize. Financing proved tough to get, so the growers pooled their money and came up with 18 percent of what was needed to build a mill. He put a team together, and they did their homework, then made a successful pitch to the Columbia Bank for Cooperatives, which agreed to a loan for more than half the debt. Secondary financing came from the engineering company doing work on the mill.

“We paid off the debt within two years,” Wedgworth proudly recalls.

The idea of growing sugar cane caught on like a muck fire among Belle Glade’s vegetable farmers. Fifty-two growers were co-op members by the time the first cane went to the mill.

In 1962, the first year of production, they grew 21,649 acres of cane and milled about 77,000 tons of raw sugar. In 2012, co-op members, now down to 46 in number, grew 68,456 acres of cane that turned out 374,266 tons of raw sugar, along with 18 million gallons of blackstrap molasses.

That’s enough sugar to supply the demands of 9 million U.S. consumers, according to the co-op’s figures. Most of the molasses goes to Europe for cattle feed.

From the co-op’s planning stages, Wedgworth got advice and expertise from the Fanjul family, who were major sugar producers in Cuba prior to Fidel Castro’s revolution. In pre-Castro Cuba, the Fanjuls owned 10 sugar mills, three distilleries and lots of sugar cane-producing land.

In 1960, following Castro’s takeover, the Fanjuls, led by Alfonso Fanjul, Sr., paid $160 an acre for 4,000 acres just south of South Bay, Fla., not far from Belle Glade. They bought and disassembled three small sugar mills in Louisiana and shipped the sections by barge to south Florida. The parts were cobbled together to build the Fanjuls’ Osceola mill.

A second Fanjul mill, Okeelanta, also south of South Bay, took shape on the site of the early-day cooperative planned community of that name. The Okeelanta settlement once had 110 families living there, but after a couple of decades of struggle, it got wiped out by the devastating 1928 hurricane that killed as many as 3,000 people in the area. Despite the somewhat spooky history, the Fanjuls’ Okeelanta project thrived.

When the elder Fanjul became interested in the fledgling co-op, he introduced the members to the engineering company that designed their mill. Meanwhile, Wedgworth befriended “Alfy” Fanjul, Jr., who helped other Cuban sugar industry veterans come to the U.S. as political refugees. Some got jobs working for the co-op just as it started up, and Wedgworth says they were key to its early success.

“It’s impossible to overstate just how important the Cubans were in our early days. Our close business relationship with the Fanjul family furnished us with top quality people, who exited Cuba because of Castro.

Original board all farmers

“Our original board was all farmers. Many of us had grown cane for many years, but we had no experience in running a raw sugar plant or a refinery. The Cubans knew the details of running a sugar mill; they understood the business while we were still in the learning stages. Some of them worked for us for many years, and were excellent, excellent people — just the best. I don’t know where we’d be now without them.”

Now called Florida Crystals Corp., the Fanjul operation includes two sugar mills and 155,000 acres, along with its own packaging and distribution center. As the entities got bigger, ties between the Fanjuls and the co-op remained strong, and at the dawn of the 21st Century, the two began to partner in acquisitions.

In 2001, the co-op and Florida Crystals bought American Sugar Refining, which includes Domino Foods as its marketing arm and sells 1,400 branded sugar products, as well as some surprising competitors, like stevia. In addition, the co-op and Florida Crystals purchased eight sugar refineries in the U.S., Mexico, Canada and England.

The partnership helps them respond to customers’ unique demands. When Wal-Mart told them in 2005 that it wanted a single supplier of sugar for the U.S., which required having a refinery west of the Mississippi River, they bought California and Hawaiian Sugar Co., which runs a refinery at Crockett, Calif.

“Now, we turn out more refined sugar than any company in the world,” Wedgworth says. “We’re each part owners. It’s an unusual arrangement, with each of us having three directors on the board. That’s an even number. The lawyers said it would never work., but in 13 years we have never had a problem. It’s really a remarkable success story.”

The original co-op sugar mill was designed to grind 5,000 tons of cane daily. This year, an exceptionally good season during which the co-op broke 10 production records, the mill averaged 23,000 tons daily and turned out a record 26,000 tons on one particularly busy day. The mill operates 24 hours a day during the harvest season, which usually runs November through March.

Under Wedgworth’s leadership as president and chief executive officer, the co-op discovered better methods of producing the cane crop as well as milling it.

For three decades, it relied on mostly Jamaican hand laborers to cut the cane. But Wedgworth knew as far back as the 1960s that arrangement had to change in order for the co-op mill to become a powerhouse producer.

“Hand labor would be the constraint to supplying the mill,” he says.

Some people said big mechanical harvesters would mire in the muck soils. Wedgworth kept looking for a machine that would work in the Glades.

“Way back then. there was a two-row cutter that worked. but not nearly as well as what we found in Australia, he says. “I flew to Australia and looked at what they had, then had an ag engineer build a prototype. All our machines now are based on that design. They run on tracks, are designed for the U.S., and are manufactured in the U.S.”

In 1992, the co-op went to mechanical harvesting on all its fields. The co-op owns the $300,000 machines, and members pay an hourly fee for harvesting their crop.

Move good for farmers, mill

The move, without question good for the farmers and the mill, was a bit of a cultural tradeoff. Jamaican crews no longer walk single-file down the roads singing, machetes in hand, metal shin guards protecting their legs, and they no longer entertain locals with their Sunday afternoon cricket matches. With their departure, a little of the old spark is missing from the scene.

Wedgworth, whose family moved to Belle Glade from Starkville, Miss., in 1930, when he was two years old, believes the co-op has been good for the community, employing 550 people, many of them engineers and technical workers.

His life story intertwines with that of the co-op and the sugar industry in a way few Americans ever have with any business. If he is not the Henry Ford or Bill Gates of the sugar business, he is something close to it.

As a youngster, when the family farm scraped by on its Depression-era vegetable business, that would have seemed far-fetched.

The Wedgworths came to Belle Glade because George’s father, Herman, with a Ph.D in plant pathology from Michigan State A&M College, took an $1,800-a-year job at the University of Florida Agricultural Experiment Station here. He primarily worked on soil fertility issues, with a focus on micronutrients.

Herman Wedgworth saw something magical in the productive, fertile muck soil, bought 320 acres and, two years after arriving in the Glades, quit his job to grow vegetables full-time. He built a state of the art packing plant and the area’s first precooling plant.

When George was 10 years old, he and a cousin were playing in the family packing house when a 10-ton ice machine tipped over and fell on Herman, killing him. Young George witnessed the accident and still gets emotional when talking about it.

His mother, Ruth, was at a local bank working out financial arrangements to keep the farm afloat when the accident occurred. She opted to stay in the Glades and continue farming. Years later, she said she had no choice in the matter — beans were ready to be harvested, and workers had to be paid.

A Michigan State A&M College graduate like her husband, soft spoken 100-pound Ruth Wedgworth, mother of two daughters in addition to George, became an agricultural business dynamo who had a unique way of running things.

“She came on the scene when people looked at women in business as the exception,” Wedgworth says. “She had management techniques she didn’t learn in any school. She built a good team, which is the key to any successful business. She never gave an order — she made suggestions. A lot of people said she would be a failure, but she was very successful.”

Ruth Wedgworth, a founding member of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, was Florida Woman of the Year in Agriculture in 1986, elected to the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1988, and given honorary doctorates by the University of Florida and Florida Southern College. She died in December 1995 at age 92.

Big shoes for George to fill? Undoubtedly. But he approached the business world somewhat differently from his mother, with ideas borne out in the sugar cane growers co-op.

“My goal as a farmer was to have enough acreage to have a good economic unit,” he says. “My mother did not like at least some of what I did. When I bought land and paid $250 an acre for it, she was horrified; she didn’t want to do it.

“She thought the land was overpriced. Of course, now it’s worth a lot more than $250. She was a vegetable grower and, prior to the sugar co-op becoming reality, I converted a lot of vegetable land to beef cattle. I bought land in Okeechobee, Osceola and Indian River counties and put cows on it.

Best hedge against inflation

“Land is probably the best hedge against inflation. Some people put their money in gold; some put in a safety deposit box and leave it there. But with land, you can always produce something. We no longer have cattle, but we still have that land. We lease it for grazing rights and use it for hunting, mostly deer and turkey.”

George was an athletic young man, captain of the football team at Belle Glade High School, where he graduated in 1946. Like his parents, he went to Michigan State College (now Michigan State University), earning a degree in agricultural engineering in 1950.

As a freshman, he tried out for the college basketball team. After a talk with the coach made him realize he would probably not see much playing time, he became the team manager, which kept him busy all four years of his college career.

Degree in hand, he returned to Belle Glade and was appalled at how Wedgworth vegetables were being marketed. “We had fantastic celery, but the price we got was terrible,” he says.

His mother responded by putting him in charge of the celery business. He used his engineering skills to build the first mechanical celery harvester and founded the Florida Celery Exchange to try to improve markets by encouraging farmers to sell the product in a team effort.

That experience helped him formulate the ideas that, a few years later, became the sugar cane cooperative.

The co-op’s timing was perfect, Wedgworth says, looking back at the startup from the perspective of half a century. He says the sugar co-op didn’t form because of Castro’s takeover of Cuba. However, the politics of the day did help create markets for the co-op’s sugar when the U.S. government officially backed away from Cuban sugar.

“Cuba was not a key consideration in our wanting to develop a processing plant,” he says. “But the timing was perfect for us; it corresponded with Cuba’s downfall as a sugar exporter to the U.S.

“We were fortunate. We had already been working with our growers to finance it, and had done a feasibility study. We started this effort before we knew what would happen with Castro.

“As it turned out, it gave us a source of a team of people who had experience processing cane, and when we came into production, marketing allotments had opened up. This all happened at the same time. For us, it was a Godsend.”

After more than 50 years of leading the co-op, Wedgworth, now 83, is taking a step back, giving up his position as president and CEO. But he remains the organization’s chairman of the board.

The new president is Tony Contreras, formerly executive vice president of marketing and refining operations. Jose Alvarez, former executive vice president of operations and general manager, now is CEO as well as general manager.

“The cooperative has been my baby,” Wedgworth says. “I nurtured and watched it grow into an international sugar powerhouse. I will miss being a part of the daily challenges.”

For all these years, for many onlookers, Wedgworth has been the focal point of the Florida sugar industry. He never hesitated to discuss issues in public forums, even as environmental groups zeroed in on sugar producers, blaming them for a wide range of problems in the Everglades.

Environmentalists have vigorously opposed him most of the past 40 years, yet he still seems to harbor hope they will somehow see the light and start to understand Glades agriculture.

In an odd sort of way, he seems to have enjoyed the back-and-forth with the industry’s opponents — the sort of fellow who wants everyone to have their say, to put all sides on the table.

After being skewered by big city journalists more times than he can count, he remains gracious and accommodating when a writer appears, notebook in hand.

Wedgworth’s son, Dennis, now manages the family farm, but that doesn’t necessarily mean George is ready to relax in a rocking chair. Until a few years ago, he regularly played tennis and still looks capable of coming up with a pretty good serve.

Parting on this day, he responds to a question about his accomplishments by saying, “What matters is family — family and friends.”

With that, he’s out the door and down the elevator. He walks to his Buick LeSabre in the parking lot, raises a hand, and waves a salute.

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