The news hit South Florida on Monday like a Category 5 hurricane: U.S. Sugar Corp., the nation's largest sugar producer and the third-largest citrus company in Florida, may soon cease to exist.
One of the nation's largest privately held agricultural companies is expected to announce a deal today that it is selling 187,000 acres stretching from south of Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades — nearly all its holdings — to the state's South Florida Water Management District for $1.75-billion.
Neither state officials nor executives with U.S. Sugar, which produces about 10 percent of the sugar produced in America, would comment on the transaction Monday evening. U.S. Sugar, which has about 1,700 employees and produces about 700,000 tons of cane sugar each year, would reportedly lease the land back from the state for about five years while phasing out production. After that time the land would become available for the state to use in the Everglades restoration project.
The possibility that U.S. Sugar, which has epitomized Big Sugar for nearly eight decades, would simply evaporate left people in the sugar industry speechless.
Barbara Miedema is a spokeswoman for Florida's Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, which represents 48 independent growers and is the third largest contributor to the state's cane crop, behind U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals.
"We're reeling from the economic devastation it's going to mean for these communities, which have been built on agriculture for generations," she said of the impact of U.S. Sugar's decision to sell. "It's just unfathomable."
Marilyn McCorvey, deputy clerk in Clewiston, said if the town's biggest employer pulls up stakes, the loss will be unimaginable. The town got its start when Charles Stewart Mott, a Michigan industrialist, bought the bankrupt Southern Sugar Co. in 1931 and convinced investors cane could be grown profitably in the muck around Lake Okeechobee.
"There's disbelief," McCorvey said. "We just wonder what's going to happen."
Though the water district's deal with U.S. Sugar has reportedly been in the works for several months, no one could put a finger on why the granddaddy of Florida's sugar business felt the need or desire to sell.
Phillip W. Hayes, a spokesman for the American Sugar Alliance in Washington, D.C., said the recently passed farm bill was seen as a victory for the industry. "We expect it will create a little upward mobility to prices that have been down in the dumps lately," he said.
And, despite U.S. Sugar's battles with environmental groups, Miedema of the Florida's growers cooperative said sugar cane growers have been supportive of the comprehensive Everglades restoration plan.
"What's the benefit?" she asked. "It's not like the state is flush with money. This is counter to everything we've worked for the last decade."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Kris Hundley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2996.