Lake Okeechobee reservoir stokes fear — well founded or not — in the Glades
THE OTHER SIDE: Our intense coverage of Lake Okeechobee discharges since 2013 has well documented Treasure Coast residents’ concerns about health, economic and environmental issues, and their demand for a solution. Today, we take readers to the Glades to understand why residents there oppose a proposed reservoir south of the lake that would hold excess water and send it to the Everglades instead of the coasts.
The town where Ernest Williams raised his eight children is tucked in between fields of cabbage, sweet corn and sugarcane. Single-engine turboprop planes constantly fly over, sprinkling insecticides over the crops. Sugar mills sit on the horizon, pumping white plumes from their smokestacks.
“If I ain’t got no money, I can go out in the fields and get greens,” the 50-year-old Belle Glade resident said. “I can go out in the fields and get vegetables, rabbits, gator … I eat gator, I eat possum, I eat (raccoon).”
Like many of his neighbors who got their start in the agricultural industry — as did their mothers and fathers before them — Williams’ first job was laboring in those fields. For the past 23 years, he’s worked at Cavinee's Paint & Body Shop, where he fixes cars, trucks, tractors and airplanes for people who work in agriculture. Owner Kenny Cavinee said farm industry workers make up 80 percent of his clientele.
Williams is one of roughly 37,000 residents of "the Glades." The mostly rural area south of Lake Okeechobee is home to the predominately black and impoverished tri-cities of Pahokee, South Bay and Belle Glade in Palm Beach County and the whiter, higher-income Clewiston in Hendry County, about 20 miles west.
Because their livelihoods depend on agriculture — an industry that’s woven through the fabric of their communities — a proposed reservoir to curb Lake Okeechobee discharges has stoked fear the loss of farmland necessary for the project means the loss of money, jobs and their culture.
"We don’t have much," said Bishop Kenny Berry, a founder-member of the Grace Fellowship Worship Center. “We don’t have your Macy’s, we don’t have your Burlington (Coat Factory), we don’t have all those major stores — not even a Home Depot.”
Berry’s church is in Belle Glade, whose poetically ironic city motto is “Her soil is her fortune.” In the tri-cities, perhaps best known to outsiders for its 1980s HIV epidemic, gang-related shootings and breeding ground for professional football players, 36 percent of residents live in poverty.
Willie Ball, 69, said he made $10.20 an hour when he retired from U.S. Sugar Corp. after 27 years working as an equipment operator. While that was a "rough" job that didn't pay much, at least the company paid for his Clewiston housing and utilities, he said.
Now the Royal Palm Beach resident owns the pickup truck he uses to haul mostly sod around the Glades.
"That's all there is, farming, truck driving, stuff like that," Ball said on a recent February afternoon, sitting in his truck and chatting with friends, one of whom sold sweet corn from a wooden box at “The Ramp.”
GLADES SNAPSHOT: Income, unemployment and poverty level
An open, paved lot in southeast Belle Glade, The Ramp is where buses pick up and drop off daily field laborers, but it’s also a meet-up spot where locals play checkers, drink and talk. It’s surrounded by dilapidated tenements and concrete houses where women, children, old and young men gather outside, sitting on their doorsteps, stoops and sidewalks.
A few blocks away is Avenue A, a main thoroughfare Berry said once thrived but now is lined with empty storefronts.
Agriculture created almost 180,000 direct and indirect jobs in Hendry and Palm Beach counties, according to a 2014 University of Florida report. Still, unemployment ranges from 5 percent to 20 percent in the Glades, where families live on less than $32,000 a year. Florida’s unemployment rate is nearly 5 percent.
"I personally find it immoral that you have two mega billion-dollar corporations parked in their front and backyard and you have high unemployment,” Everglades Trust Executive Director Kimberly Mitchell said, referring to Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar Corp.
Florida Crystals’ annual revenue is estimated at nearly $593 million and U.S. Sugar Corp.’s is $447 million, according to Hoovers, a business research subsidiary of Dun & Bradstreet.
J.P. Sasser, who served as Pahokee's mayor for nine years, is now an informal promoter of the tri-cities, often taking out-of-towners and news reporters on tours. He acknowledges the poverty, even takes visitors on a brief ride through "the hood" in Pahokee, but he still boasts about the joys of living in a rural, small-town farming community.
"There is never any doubt the way we earn our living," said the 61-year-old, who stands 6-feet-1 with big blue eyes and a booming voice. "It doesn’t matter if you go by a million-dollar home, it's still got a cane field ... right across there."
SCROLL DOWN to see graphics and a historical timeline on the sugar industry.
In one corner of Cavinee's Paint & Body Shop sits a boat part waiting to be fixed. It belongs to a corn farmer.
"If the farmers don't do good, you don't do good," said owner Kenny Cavinee, who's lived in the area since 1963.
Taking land out of production for a Lake O reservoir would cause a direct impact on the agricultural industry, but to what degree is up for debate. The project’s main proponent, Senate President Joe Negron, has said he would keep impacts to a minimum.
GLADES SNAPSHOT: Farms, acreage and sugar production
Despite Negron’s assurance, residents still worry about the ripple effects his proposal, which the Legislature will hear this year, could have on the entire Glades business community. U.S. Sugar Corp. is Hendry County's largest employer, according to Clewiston Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Hillary Hyslope. Production affects their workers and the businesses they frequent.
“That's then the place that I go get my nails done that’s lost my business," she said hypothetically. "It’s the place where I get my hair cut, the private school that my children go to."
GLADES RESIDENTS SAY: Don’t blame us for discharges
Sugar proponents also defend the companies as good community partners, the door you knock on for charity.
U.S. Sugar Corp.’s website, for instance, boasts about donating 1,000 shoes to local students in January and helping build homes for two families last year.
The Fanjul family, which owns Florida Crystals, runs New Hope Charities to serve needy families in western Palm Beach County. Matriarch Emilia Fanjul opened two Pahokee charter schools to serve mostly minority children. She even flew in a Catholic priest to bless Glades Academy when its building opened in 2011, according to Sasser.
"You come out here and you see (Glades Academy) and then you hear the total bull (expletive) that comes out of Martin County about the Fanjuls,” Sasser said.
The Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, made up of 45 small and medium growers, has said it will have to close its Belle Glade mill if 60,000 acres are taken out of production.
In response, the grassroots "Guardians of the Glades" formed to oppose the state buying farmland for a reservoir. And in refusing to sell their land, members of EAA Farmers Inc., a coalition of farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area, have cited the potential shuttering of the mill and two vegetable packinghouses.
GLADES RESIDENTS SAY: Mill closing devastated towns
Mitchell, with the Everglades Trust, is among the critics who blame the sugar industry for inciting the panic — and hypocritically so. Sugar companies have opened and closed Glades mills for the last 100 years because of wide-ranging influences such as global markets, economic conditions, government policies and hurricanes. U.S. Sugar Corp. even agreed to sell all of its farmland to the state for Everglades restoration in a proposed 2008 buyout, but since has cooled to the idea.
"You know where this (mill closing claim) comes from?" Mitchell said. "It's Big Sugar’s playbook."
Negron, R-Stuart, has said he doesn’t believe the mill will close because of his reservoir plan. He might need less than the 60,000 acres he initially suggested last year, which represents less than 10 percent of the agricultural area south of the lake. He’s also exploring a combination of private and public lands. The state could even seek parcels with poor soil, as not all farmland in the area is highly productive, said Mitchell, whose group is among those lobbying for the reservoir.
Lawmakers have asked the land-buy bill be amended before the next Florida Senate committee hears it to include provisions to help affected communities. Negron said that's a possibility, but had no specific suggestions.
RELATED STORY: Propaganda over reservoir heats up
Whether the reservoir would be catastrophic for the agricultural industry as Glades residents fear will be the subject of much debate in the months to come.
Agriculture hasn’t lifted people out of poverty, but for better or worse, Berry said, “This is the industry that's here."
Story and graphics digitally produced by Hannah Schwab. Photos and videos shot by Leah Voss.
Use the arrows to flip though the historical timeline of Florida's sugar industry. See the timeline on mobile and tablet devices.