Okeechobee News: Sugar farmers push back on attacks from politicians and media

Article Posted on August 17, 2018

By: Richard Marion, Okeechobee News

OKEECHOBEE — Farmers around Lake Okeechobee are attempting to push back against attacks from politicians and media outlets around south Florida.

After toxic algae blooms began to take over waterways in south Florida, some politicians running for election began to single out one scapegoat, ‘Big Sugar.’

During a campaign event in Fort Myers in early July, Republican Florida governor hopeful Ron DeSantis blamed sugar farmers for the algae crisis and claimed his opponent Adam Putnam was controlled by ‘big sugar.’

“I want to clean up the waterways here in south Florida,” said Mr. DeSantis. “He (Putnam) is captive to big sugar. He won’t do anything they don’t want him to do.”

The implication being that ‘big sugar’ is responsible for the algae crisis, and that their goal is for it to continue.

Opponents of ‘Big Sugar’ claim that sugar farms around Lake Okeechobee are responsible for the increased phosphorus in the lake that blue-green algae feeds on, and water released from the lake by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is responsible for the both the algae crisis on the east coast of Florida and the red tide disaster on the west coast.

However, about 90 percent of the phosphorus load into Lake Okeechobee comes from the watershed north of the lake. A majority of the sugar farms in Florida are located south of Lake Okeechobee.

According to the South Florida Water Management District, only 4 percent of the phosphorus entering the lake comes from south of the lake.

University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) regional sugarcane extension agent Stewart Swanson thinks this disconnect between rhetoric and reality is a function of so few people being involved with agriculture.

“Everybody looks for a word that’ll catch everybody’s attention you know that’s how you get ‘Big Sugar’ and everything,” said Mr. Swanson. “But there isn’t that much acreage of sugarcane north of the lake. There’s a couple thousand acres near Highlands County, that’s about it. But in the watershed that runs all the way to Disney World you have 140,000 acres of citrus. So it’s 140,000 acres of citrus versus about 2,000 acres of sugar cane that’s in the watershed north of the lake.”

Mr. Swanson also stated that sugar cane has the lowest requirements of nutrients for many crops grown in south Florida, only requiring a fraction of the nitrogen and phosphorus compared to a vegetable or citrus crop.

Neither DeSantis nor any of the governor hopefuls on the Democratic side have run ads attacking ‘Big Citrus.’

Judy Sanchez, senior director of corporate Communications & Public Affairs for U.S. Sugar says both U.S. Sugar and the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce are conducting public tours and bringing coastal residents out to tour sugar farms and processing facilities to get a first-hand look at how their food is grown and processed in hopes of telling their side of the story…

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