Letter from the Everglades

Driving north through South Florida on U.S. Route 27, you can almost imagine how the Everglades used to be. The river of grass is missing, but you’ll still see scattered, swampy tree stands and flocks of birds rising in a pink and orange sky.

Route 27 begins near Florida’s southernmost tip and stretches north up the state’s center, separating Miami from saw grass prairie, cypress forest, and mangrove marsh. Farther north are sugarcane fields reminiscent of Iowa’s cornfields with their row after row of grassy, bamboo-like stalks. I drove this route one day last year as the sun was setting, and it took me past vegetable stands, sugarcane fields, and, eventually, the town of Clewiston, Florida, near Lake Okeechobee’s southern shore. There, the road strings together a Wal-Mart, a few banks, motels, and eateries with names like Dixie Fried Chicken and Seafood Café.

Clewiston is flanked on one side by the second largest freshwater lake in the lower forty-eight and, on the other side, beyond the businesses lining Route 27 and the tidy neighborhoods tucked behind it, the U.S. Sugar Corporation. The company is the nation’s largest sugar producer, turning out some 700,000 tons annually, and comprising up to ten percent of the nation’s domestic supply. The mill is the heart of Clewiston, employing at least half of the town’s population; its smokestacks loom with a physical might matching that of the lake itself, pumping smoke like a heart pumps blood.

The company also sits in the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area, a 700,000-acre swath of land south of Lake Okeechobee set aside by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after the Everglades were drained for farming. Those acres represent more than a quarter of what used to be the Everglades. Farmers raise tomatoes, peppers, squash, green beans, cattle and millions of tons of sugarcane annually.

Together, these sugar growers, along with growers in Louisiana, Minnesota, Idaho, North Dakota, Michigan, and California, are known among the industry’s critics as Big Sugar. It’s difficult to exaggerate the scope of Big Sugar’s power and influence in federal and state government: federal policy protects sugar prices and restricts trade, helping to ensure that sugar growers turn a profit and affecting the price of everything from candy to ketchup. A 2000 U.S. General Accounting Office report found that the policy cost domestic sweetener users $1.9 billion in 1998. And among crop industries, Big Sugar is one of the most generous in politics, spending over $7.5 million on federal lobbying alone in 2009, an all-time high.

To its opponents, Big Sugar is the villain of the Everglades, a huge region supporting dozens of federally threatened and endangered species and some 200 million gallons of drinking water for South Floridians daily. Meanwhile, in Hendry County, where Clewiston is located, unemployment surpassed twenty percent in 2010.

I arrived in town at nightfall and headed to Scotty’s Tiki Bar at Roland Martin Marina, an open-air dive for boaters on Lake Okeechobee. It was an unusually chilly evening for Florida, and I dug my hands in my pockets as I sat at the bar. Over beers, I chatted with some locals who spoke quietly of cancer and other health ailments associated with the fertilizers growers use. Respiratory problems are common, it turns out, because growers burn sugar fields before harvesting them mechanically. “Everybody here either works for Sugar or is connected with it somehow,” one woman told me. “There’s really nothing else here,” said another.

The next morning was lovely, bright and cool. I toured Clewiston with Mali Gardner, then the town’s mayor, who has lived in the community since she was in kindergarten. Some of her friends now were kindergarten classmates. Clewiston is a community that exists in stark contrast to the growth and development that have transformed most of the rest of the state. Farmers raise sugar and vegetables on the same family farms as generations before them, some worshipping with the same congregations their entire lives. The town and its neighboring communities are relics of another time, and they are in danger of fading into history. Tourism, Gardner said, is one way community leaders are working to prevent that. Clewiston’s location on the cusp of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades makes it ideal for ecotourism. Bass fishing is huge. The area also offers birding, hunting, and skydiving, and it is popular among bikers.

Butch Wilson is another person who knows something about the town’s unique relationship with history. Now the director of the Clewiston Museum, Wilson worked at U.S. Sugar for thiry-two years before he was laid off in 2007 as the company downsized. When I visited the museum, he told me about Charles Stewart Mott, the industrialist and philanthropist who established U.S. Sugar in the 1930s, a man who believed that for a company to be strong the community must be strong. “He believed very strongly in the company and town being one,” Wilson said. Sugar executives were required to live in Clewiston, creating a personal connection to the community. And when Wilson worked at U.S. Sugar, he received bonuses every year.

He walked over to a Florida map hanging on a museum wall and pointed at the state’s midsection, where theme parks, cattle ranches, and sprawling Orlando (where I live) pollute the Everglades’ headwaters. U.S. Sugar’s size makes it an easy target, he told me. It was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—not U.S. Sugar—who constructed the Everglades Agricultural Area in its strategic location south of Lake Okeechobee, he said.

“When people did this they didn’t do this to destroy nature. They weren’t evil. They were just people trying to make a living, and it just turned out developing these communities made changes.” he said. “So you know, you can be philosophical, but these towns are here. They’ll be here to stay, and they have lives and families, and we want to carry on just like anyone else in the nation.”

Amy Green is a journalist in Orlando, Florida, whose work has appeared in Newsweek, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. She is writing a book about the Everglades.