“Our original board was all farmers. Many of us had grown cane for many years, but we had no experience in running a raw sugar plant or a refinery. The Cubans knew the details of running a sugar mill; they understood the business while we were still in the learning stages. Some of them worked for us for many years, and were excellent, excellent people — just the best. I don’t know where we’d be now without them.”

Now called Florida Crystals Corp., the Fanjul operation includes two sugar mills and 155,000 acres, along with its own packaging and distribution center. As the entities got bigger, ties between the Fanjuls and the co-op remained strong, and at the dawn of the 21st Century, the two began to partner in acquisitions.

In 2001, the co-op and Florida Crystals bought American Sugar Refining, which includes Domino Foods as its marketing arm and sells 1,400 branded sugar products, as well as some surprising competitors, like stevia. In addition, the co-op and Florida Crystals purchased eight sugar refineries in the U.S., Mexico, Canada and England.

The partnership helps them respond to customers’ unique demands. When Wal-Mart told them in 2005 that it wanted a single supplier of sugar for the U.S., which required having a refinery west of the Mississippi River, they bought California and Hawaiian Sugar Co., which runs a refinery at Crockett, Calif.

“Now, we turn out more refined sugar than any company in the world,” Wedgworth says. “We’re each part owners. It’s an unusual arrangement, with each of us having three directors on the board. That’s an even number. The lawyers said it would never work., but in 13 years we have never had a problem. It’s really a remarkable success story.”

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.

Under Wedgworth’s leadership as president and chief executive officer, the co-op discovered better methods of producing the cane crop as well as milling it.

For three decades, it relied on mostly Jamaican hand laborers to cut the cane. But Wedgworth knew as far back as the 1960s that arrangement had to change in order for the co-op mill to become a powerhouse producer.

“Hand labor would be the constraint to supplying the mill,” he says.

Some people said big mechanical harvesters would mire in the muck soils. Wedgworth kept looking for a machine that would work in the Glades.

“Way back then. there was a two-row cutter that worked. but not nearly as well as what we found in Australia, he says. “I flew to Australia and looked at what they had, then had an ag engineer build a prototype. All our machines now are based on that design. They run on tracks, are designed for the U.S., and are manufactured in the U.S.”

In 1992, the co-op went to mechanical harvesting on all its fields. The co-op owns the $300,000 machines, and members pay an hourly fee for harvesting their crop.