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Sugarcane, King of Crops 

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Harvesting sugarcane, ca. 1920s.

Sugarcane is a tropical grass that was first grown in Asia over 4,000 years ago. When the early settlers along Lake Worth planted sugarcane, the soil was too salty. Farmers in eastern Palm Beach County were more successful in the 1920s, but the 1960s saw the most local growth in the crop. Sugarcane growers use some 440,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), mostly in Palm Beach County, where it is our largest crop. 

Henry Flagler and some of his officers formed the Florida East Coast Drainage and Sugar Company in 1898 to contract with the State of Florida, but delays eventually prevented the partnership. The company’s prospectus, however, made great claims about sugarcane yields in similar Florida locations. 

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F.E. Bryant checking sugarcane.

One of the first people to invest in sugarcane was Frederick Edward Bryant, who had come from England in 1894 to study agricultural methods in New Mexico and owned a dairy in Colorado with his brother, Harold J. Bryant. After visiting Florida in 1908, F. E. Bryant became interested in developing agriculture in the Everglades. The brothers started Palm Beach Farms Company, which developed the subdivision that became the cities of Lake Worth and Greenacres. 

During World War I, the shortage of sugar renewed Bryant’s interest in the Everglades, and he convinced the U.S. Department of Agriculture to build a sugarcane breeding station at Canal Point. Bryant and G. T. Anderson started Florida Sugar and Food Products Company and built the first sugar mill in the Glades in 1921. To raise capital, they merged their business with the Southern Sugar Company. A company town called “Azucar” (sugar) evolved at the plantation, which was renamed “Bryant” in 1946 after the founder’s death. Bryant had provided his workers, primarily African Americans, with decent housing and recreation areas, believing their comfort made for better workers.  

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Sugar Mill at Canal Point in March 1923.

When Southern Sugar was failing financially in 1931, rescue came from an unexpected source: General Motors Corporation (GMC). Its then-president, engineer Charles Stewart Mott, inherited an interest in land from his farming ancestors, who came to the United States in 1645. With Mott at the helm, GM formed United States Sugar Corporation and took over Southern Sugar Corporation. Mott added millions of his own dollars to GM’s investment. After Mott was succeeded by his son, Charles Stewart Harding Mott, U.S. Sugar diversified into citrus and vegetables, purchasing South Bay Growers in 1980. Soon after, U.S. Sugar became Florida’s leading sugar producer, due in part to the efficiency of its sugar mills and its development of quality machinery. 

After Fidel Castro and the Communist Party took control of Cuba in 1959, they quickly confiscated all sugarcane farms on the island. American growers in the Glades saw a chance to increase their sugarcane production. At that time, only 47,000 acres of sugarcane were planted in the EAA. Just four years later growers harvested 138,000 acres of sugarcane, and the following year, 228,000 acres.

Some of the Cuban sugar producers started over in the U.S., and in the 1960s, with other Glades growers, formed the Sugarcane Growers Cooperative of Florida. The Cooperative works together to harvest and process their sugarcane and then markets the raw sugar. For 40 years the Cooperative had the largest sugar mill in the nation.

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