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Machines take last of state's cane jobs from field workers

A controversial chapter in American labor history ended last week when the last big Florida sugar company to employ Jamaican field labor converted to machines.

"We just couldn't continue it," said Bob Buker, executive vice president of U.S. Sugar Corp. "Machines are so much cheaper now. There was no other decision to make."

The decision is likely to create economic hardship not only for the Jamaican workers, but for dozens of small businesses around Lake Okeechobee that geared their services and wares toward their seasonal Caribbean clients.

During the five-month harvest season, the 200,000 acres of cane fields in western Palm Beach, Hendry, Martin and Glades counties were set ablaze to make it easier to hack down the stiff stalks. The Jamaican workers wore steel shin guards to protect themselves from the sweep of their own finely honed knife blades. Even so, injuries were frequent.

The cutters worked with astonishing precision and speed. They were required to cut eight tons a day and made more money if they cut more than that.

But for decades, Florida's billion-dollar sugar industry was the target of dozens of lawsuits filed on behalf of the cane cutters. At its height, the industry imported 12,000 men to cut cane _ a job the companies said Americans were unwilling to do.

The other sugar growers, including the Flo-Sun companies owned by Palm Beach's Fanjul family and the 57 smaller farmers who make up the Florida Sugar Cane Cooperative, traded men for machines three years ago.