Bowls of hard candy sat atop tables in the back of meeting rooms at the Everglades Coalition Conference in late January.
Environmentalists, politicians, scientists and sugar industry staff all rolled candy on their tongues.
The upper stretches of the River of Grass are still grass, but the river runs through canals that lead east and west, and the sawgrass has been replaced by a much more finicky species: sugarcane.
Whether they're tree-huggers or lumberjacks, Americans love sweets, and about a quarter of the nation's sugar starts its life in what was once part of the Everglades.
"You can see how the vast expanse of sugar cane fields have severed the hydrologic connection between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades," said Ray Judah, a Lee County commissioner and vocal critic of the sugar industry's continued presence in South Florida.
The sugar growers didn't build the infrastructure that made intense agriculture in the Everglades possible.
The U.S. government did that 60 years ago with flood control projects. Once farmers could grow crops in the Everglades without the threat of severe floods, the sugar industry dug its roots in about 60,000 acres.
The U.S. embargo on Cuban imports in 1963 made growing sugar at home more profitable, and the repeal of quotas on domestic sugar production in 1974 launched the industry into a powerful financial, political and geographic force.
By 1990, sugarcane fields covered 450,000 acres of the former Everglades.
The power of sugar
Like a mythical demon, the sugar industry is blamed for everything that's wrong with Lake Okeechobee, the coastal estuaries and the Everglades.
While no single entity is responsible for Lake Okeechobee's faltering health, there are reasons people point their fingers at sugar cane.
Past sugar-farming practices loaded the lake with algae-causing fertilizers and toxic pesticides, and the industry's water supply demands necessitated high water levels in the lake, which killed the lake's marshes.
The industry also brought legal challenges against the state's earliest efforts to reduce phosphorus in stormwater runoff to the lake and the Everglades.
Professional bass fisherman Mark Davis
David Pelham, refinery manager
- AUDIO: Inside the sugar refinery
Judy Sanchez, spokeswoman for U.S. Sugar
Alvin Ward, Glades County Commissioner
Paul Gray, Lake Okeechobee watershed science coordinator for Audubon of Florida
Wayne Nelson, head of Fishermen Against Destruction of the Environment
To the sugar industry's history of bickering over water quality, add financial influence and a complicated government loan program that protects the industry's profit margin and trade regulations that drive up the price of sugar in the United States.
Judy Sanchez, spokeswoman for U.S. Sugar Corporation in Clewiston, said sugar is a scapegoat for the ecosystem's troubles because people don't know enough about the industry.
"We're an easy target. We're out here relatively isolated from everyone. We're in a highly visible business because we're so different and it's something they don't know much about," Sanchez said, standing in the black soil of a harvested cane field. "Big Sugar.
You don't hear anyone ever say Big Corn or Big Lettuce."
People do say, "Big Tobacco."
For the 2004 election cycle, tobacco companies donated $3.66 million to federal candidates, political parties and political action committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Sugar companies donated $3.2 million.
All fruit and vegetable growers combined, including big names like Chiquita, Dole and Blue Diamond, donated about $2.2 million.
Since 1996, Everglades-based sugar companies and cooperatives have donated more than $22 million to Florida election campaigns, according to the Florida Division of Elections database.
The sugar industry filters money to politicians, pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobbyists and spends gobs of money on television advertisements and public relations.
At a recent meeting of the water management district's governing board, Jeanmarie Ferrara, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sugar, passed out signs to farmworkers that read, "Don't Flood our Homes." The signs were made to protest Judah's suggestion that fields in the Everglades Agriculture Area be used for water storage during years when too much rain falls on Lake Okeechobee.
While billions of dollars are being spent to restore the Everglades, local politicians like Judah and conservationists like Wayne Nelson, head of Fisherman Against Destruction of the Environment, view the sugar industry as being in the way, both physically and financially.
"Good environmental practice and environmental law does not drive this process," Nelson said, speaking about Everglades restoration. "What drives this process is politics, and what drives South Florida water politics is sugar money."
Officials with U.S. Sugar say their industry has been contributing plenty of money to restoration efforts, while also spending money to make sugar farming cleaner and more efficient.
The 1994 Everglades Forever Act forced farmers south of the lake to reduce the amount of fertilizers they used, sell off 40,000 acres of land for stormwater treatment and pay a yearly tax of $25 per acre for 20 years.
- RELATED: Florida's ailing heart
- RELATED: In murky legal waters
- ON THE WEB: South Florida Water Management District -- Lake Okeechobee
- ON THE WEB: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- Lake Okeechobee
Over the course of 20 years, Everglades farmers will pay $320 million in taxes to the South Florida Water Management District for the $800 million Everglades Construction Project, which was outlined in the act. Through the use of environmentally sound farming practices, Sanchez said, water that flows from sugar fields is now much cleaner than Lake Okeechobee's water. She also said the farms and canals provide valuable habitat for birds and other wildlife.
Malcolm "Bubba" Wade, vice president of U.S. Sugar and a member of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board, said environmentalists need to concentrate on cleaning up north of Lake Okeechobee, where cattle and dairy farms contribute to most of the lake's phosphorus pollution.
Sugar the engine driving towns' economy
Cattle egrets, awaiting an exodus of bugs, sat patiently on a clear January morning at the edge of a sugar cane field that Trey Dyess, a farm manager for U.S. Sugar, had just set aflame. The fire worked slowly through the cane, sending clouds of ash into the air. Rabbits and mice and a host of insects dashed from the burning grass and the birds began their feast.
Later, harvesting machines worked through the field, cutting the grass just above its roots and stripping it of whatever leaves remained. The cane then traveled a couple miles by truck to a lift station where the load was transferred into a rail car bound for the U.S. Sugar processing plant and refinery.
On a good day, when all the machinery works properly, the refinery packages 2 million pounds of sugar, said David Pelham, refinery manager.
The company farms almost 200,000 acres of land and produces approximately 700,000 tons of sugar a year.
All that work translates into 1,800 full-time jobs and a slew of other work for contract laborers and independent growers.
Florida Crystals, U.S. Sugar's competitor in the Everglades, farms about 180,000 acres of land.
According to the company Web site, Florida Crystals employs 3,000 people.
Jeff Barwick, Clewiston history-buff and former chamber of commerce president, said hoping for sugar to disappear from the Everglades is unrealistic.
"You can't say, ‘Give the farmers some money and give the workers some money.' You've got to replicate the economy of Clewiston," Barwick said.
To the people who grew up in the region, sugar means the world to them.
At U.S. Sugar, a good portion of the workers grew up under the company's wing. Sanchez herself moved to the area when her father got a job as an equipment engineer for U.S. Sugar.
Pelham started out as a laborer in the processing plant 21 years ago. His father was a watch engineer for the company for 40 years.
Pelham can't fathom Clewiston without sugar.
"I would have to leave the area. This is the area I've been in all my life. It's vital to my family's existence in South Florida," Pelham said.
Will sugar's future be sweet?
Though America's Sweetest Town might not go sour anytime soon, loss of soil, changes in world trade, economic shifts and urban sprawl could put pressure on the industry.
Barwick said Clewiston's economy will gradually change and sugar will probably drop out of the picture.
"That's just the natural evolution anywhere," Barwick said. When Clewiston first became a city, he said, most of its residents relied on catfishing for a living.
Wade and Sanchez highlight the company's plans to build the world's largest vertically integrated sugar mill and refinery as an indication that U.S. Sugar will be around for decades to come.
"We've been here 75 years; we hope to be farming into the next 75," Sanchez said.
Paul Gray, Lake Okeechobee watershed science coordinator for Audubon of Florida, said sugar farming cannot continue indefinitely in the Everglades because the muck soil is oxidizing. He said water managers need to start thinking now about how they want the landscape to function once sugar becomes obsolete.
"It's a fantasy that they're going to be there forever. I don't want to be rude about it, but it just doesn't make sense," Gray said.