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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.
Move good for farmers, mill
The move, without question good for the farmers and the mill, was a bit of a cultural tradeoff. Jamaican crews no longer walk single-file down the roads singing, machetes in hand, metal shin guards protecting their legs, and they no longer entertain locals with their Sunday afternoon cricket matches. With their departure, a little of the old spark is missing from the scene.
Wedgworth, whose family moved to Belle Glade from Starkville, Miss., in 1930, when he was two years old, believes the co-op has been good for the community, employing 550 people, many of them engineers and technical workers.
His life story intertwines with that of the co-op and the sugar industry in a way few Americans ever have with any business. If he is not the Henry Ford or Bill Gates of the sugar business, he is something close to it.
As a youngster, when the family farm scraped by on its Depression-era vegetable business, that would have seemed far-fetched.
The Wedgworths came to Belle Glade because George’s father, Herman, with a Ph.D in plant pathology from Michigan State A&M College, took an $1,800-a-year job at the University of Florida Agricultural Experiment Station here. He primarily worked on soil fertility issues, with a focus on micronutrients.
Herman Wedgworth saw something magical in the productive, fertile muck soil, bought 320 acres and, two years after arriving in the Glades, quit his job to grow vegetables full-time. He built a state of the art packing plant and the area’s first precooling plant.
When George was 10 years old, he and a cousin were playing in the family packing house when a 10-ton ice machine tipped over and fell on Herman, killing him. Young George witnessed the accident and still gets emotional when talking about it.
His mother, Ruth, was at a local bank working out financial arrangements to keep the farm afloat when the accident occurred. She opted to stay in the Glades and continue farming. Years later, she said she had no choice in the matter — beans were ready to be harvested, and workers had to be paid.
A Michigan State A&M College graduate like her husband, soft spoken 100-pound Ruth Wedgworth, mother of two daughters in addition to George, became an agricultural business dynamo who had a unique way of running things.
“She came on the scene when people looked at women in business as the exception,” Wedgworth says. “She had management techniques she didn’t learn in any school. She built a good team, which is the key to any successful business. She never gave an order — she made suggestions. A lot of people said she would be a failure, but she was very successful.”
Ruth Wedgworth, a founding member of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, was Florida Woman of the Year in Agriculture in 1986, elected to the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1988, and given honorary doctorates by the University of Florida and Florida Southern College. She died in December 1995 at age 92.
Big shoes for George to fill? Undoubtedly. But he approached the business world somewhat differently from his mother, with ideas borne out in the sugar cane growers co-op.
“My goal as a farmer was to have enough acreage to have a good economic unit,” he says. “My mother did not like at least some of what I did. When I bought land and paid $250 an acre for it, she was horrified; she didn’t want to do it.
“She thought the land was overpriced. Of course, now it’s worth a lot more than $250. She was a vegetable grower and, prior to the sugar co-op becoming reality, I converted a lot of vegetable land to beef cattle. I bought land in Okeechobee, Osceola and Indian River counties and put cows on it.