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• The original co-op sugar mill was designed to grind 5,000 tons of cane daily. This year, an exceptionally good season during which the co-op broke 10 production records, the mill averaged 23,000 tons daily and turned out a record 26,000 tons on one particularly busy day. The mill operates 24 hours a day during the harvest season, which usually runs November through March.
Then 31 years old, Wedgworth led the effort to organize. Financing proved tough to get, so the growers pooled their money and came up with 18 percent of what was needed to build a mill. He put a team together, and they did their homework, then made a successful pitch to the Columbia Bank for Cooperatives, which agreed to a loan for more than half the debt. Secondary financing came from the engineering company doing work on the mill.
“We paid off the debt within two years,” Wedgworth proudly recalls.
The idea of growing sugar cane caught on like a muck fire among Belle Glade’s vegetable farmers. Fifty-two growers were co-op members by the time the first cane went to the mill.
In 1962, the first year of production, they grew 21,649 acres of cane and milled about 77,000 tons of raw sugar. In 2012, co-op members, now down to 46 in number, grew 68,456 acres of cane that turned out 374,266 tons of raw sugar, along with 18 million gallons of blackstrap molasses.
That’s enough sugar to supply the demands of 9 million U.S. consumers, according to the co-op’s figures. Most of the molasses goes to Europe for cattle feed.
From the co-op’s planning stages, Wedgworth got advice and expertise from the Fanjul family, who were major sugar producers in Cuba prior to Fidel Castro’s revolution. In pre-Castro Cuba, the Fanjuls owned 10 sugar mills, three distilleries and lots of sugar cane-producing land.
In 1960, following Castro’s takeover, the Fanjuls, led by Alfonso Fanjul, Sr., paid $160 an acre for 4,000 acres just south of South Bay, Fla., not far from Belle Glade. They bought and disassembled three small sugar mills in Louisiana and shipped the sections by barge to south Florida. The parts were cobbled together to build the Fanjuls’ Osceola mill.
A second Fanjul mill, Okeelanta, also south of South Bay, took shape on the site of the early-day cooperative planned community of that name. The Okeelanta settlement once had 110 families living there, but after a couple of decades of struggle, it got wiped out by the devastating 1928 hurricane that killed as many as 3,000 people in the area. Despite the somewhat spooky history, the Fanjuls’ Okeelanta project thrived.
When the elder Fanjul became interested in the fledgling co-op, he introduced the members to the engineering company that designed their mill. Meanwhile, Wedgworth befriended “Alfy” Fanjul, Jr., who helped other Cuban sugar industry veterans come to the U.S. as political refugees. Some got jobs working for the co-op just as it started up, and Wedgworth says they were key to its early success.
“It’s impossible to overstate just how important the Cubans were in our early days. Our close business relationship with the Fanjul family furnished us with top quality people, who exited Cuba because of Castro.