The enterprise known as the Sugar Cane Cooperative of Florida harvests, transports, and processes the sugarcane grown mostly in Palm Beach County. They market raw sugar and blackstrap molasses through the Florida Sugar and Molasses Exchange. Forty-five grower-owners make up the Cooperative and produce the sugarcane on approximately 70,000 acres and produce more than 350,000 tons of raw sugar annually. This is some of the most fertile farmland in America and is located in the Everglades Agricultural Area.
In the 1950s, 16 farmers met to discuss joining together with other farmers in the Glades area (west of West Palm Beach, Florida, and southeast of Lake Okeechobee), to form a farming cooperative. Wanting to bring stability to the growers’ operations, the cooperative’s goal was to provide a means to harvest, mill, process, and market the sugar and its by-products. The cooperative was chartered in 1960, by 54 farmers.
The member-growers were assessed 30 cents per ton in 1960 to pay for a feasibility study to build their own sugar mill. In 1962 the Glades SugarHouse opened with a capacity to grind 6,000 tons of sugarcane per day. Today it was on the largest sugar mills in the world with the capacity to grind 26,000 tons of sugarcane per day. During the 150-day harvest season, it operates 24-hours a day.
Severe damage has been done to the Greater Everglades ecosystem by the Everglades Agricultural Area due to environmental modifications made to allow commercial agriculture. This has included the direct loss of native wildlife habitat by the draining of former wetlands. As well, with the continued overuse of agricultural fertilizers has led to the widespread loss of native plants and wildlife. While the cooperative has worked with scientists and produced the “Best Management Practices” to reduce the nutrients leaving the farming region, environmental advocates say it’s not enough. Phosphorus is still making its way into environmentally sensitive estuarian ecosystems such as the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon.
In 1994, the “Everglades Forever Act” was approved by the Florida Legislature. In the Act, farmers are required to achieve a 25 percent reduction in phosphorus in the waters flowing off farmland. The Act also provided for the construction of 40,000 acres of natural filter marshes to reduce the phosphorus in the water in the urbanized areas and Lake Okeechobee. Additionally, the Act imposed a $25 per acre tax, as well as comprehensive water monitoring and reporting requirements.