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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.
Best hedge against inflation
“Land is probably the best hedge against inflation. Some people put their money in gold; some put in a safety deposit box and leave it there. But with land, you can always produce something. We no longer have cattle, but we still have that land. We lease it for grazing rights and use it for hunting, mostly deer and turkey.”
George was an athletic young man, captain of the football team at Belle Glade High School, where he graduated in 1946. Like his parents, he went to Michigan State College (now Michigan State University), earning a degree in agricultural engineering in 1950.
As a freshman, he tried out for the college basketball team. After a talk with the coach made him realize he would probably not see much playing time, he became the team manager, which kept him busy all four years of his college career.
Degree in hand, he returned to Belle Glade and was appalled at how Wedgworth vegetables were being marketed. “We had fantastic celery, but the price we got was terrible,” he says.
His mother responded by putting him in charge of the celery business. He used his engineering skills to build the first mechanical celery harvester and founded the Florida Celery Exchange to try to improve markets by encouraging farmers to sell the product in a team effort.
That experience helped him formulate the ideas that, a few years later, became the sugar cane cooperative.
The co-op’s timing was perfect, Wedgworth says, looking back at the startup from the perspective of half a century. He says the sugar co-op didn’t form because of Castro’s takeover of Cuba. However, the politics of the day did help create markets for the co-op’s sugar when the U.S. government officially backed away from Cuban sugar.
“Cuba was not a key consideration in our wanting to develop a processing plant,” he says. “But the timing was perfect for us; it corresponded with Cuba’s downfall as a sugar exporter to the U.S.
“We were fortunate. We had already been working with our growers to finance it, and had done a feasibility study. We started this effort before we knew what would happen with Castro.
“As it turned out, it gave us a source of a team of people who had experience processing cane, and when we came into production, marketing allotments had opened up. This all happened at the same time. For us, it was a Godsend.”
After more than 50 years of leading the co-op, Wedgworth, now 83, is taking a step back, giving up his position as president and CEO. But he remains the organization’s chairman of the board.
The new president is Tony Contreras, formerly executive vice president of marketing and refining operations. Jose Alvarez, former executive vice president of operations and general manager, now is CEO as well as general manager.
“The cooperative has been my baby,” Wedgworth says. “I nurtured and watched it grow into an international sugar powerhouse. I will miss being a part of the daily challenges.”
For all these years, for many onlookers, Wedgworth has been the focal point of the Florida sugar industry. He never hesitated to discuss issues in public forums, even as environmental groups zeroed in on sugar producers, blaming them for a wide range of problems in the Everglades.
Environmentalists have vigorously opposed him most of the past 40 years, yet he still seems to harbor hope they will somehow see the light and start to understand Glades agriculture.
In an odd sort of way, he seems to have enjoyed the back-and-forth with the industry’s opponents — the sort of fellow who wants everyone to have their say, to put all sides on the table.
After being skewered by big city journalists more times than he can count, he remains gracious and accommodating when a writer appears, notebook in hand.
Wedgworth’s son, Dennis, now manages the family farm, but that doesn’t necessarily mean George is ready to relax in a rocking chair. Until a few years ago, he regularly played tennis and still looks capable of coming up with a pretty good serve.
Parting on this day, he responds to a question about his accomplishments by saying, “What matters is family — family and friends.”
With that, he’s out the door and down the elevator. He walks to his Buick LeSabre in the parking lot, raises a hand, and waves a salute.