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Sugar Farmers Balk At Selling Land For Reservoir

sugarcane.jpg
U.S. Sugar Corp.

Sugar farmers who own land in an area targeted by Senate President Joe Negron for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee said Monday they won't be "willing sellers" to the state.
The Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida intends to deliver a letter Tuesday at a meeting of the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee, which will review a controversial land-acquisition measure (SB 10).

The $2.4 billion proposal, filed by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and backed by Negron, R-Stuart, seeks to acquire 60,000 acres as a way to redirect the flow of polluted water from the lake away from the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. Discharges from the lake into the estuaries have caused environmental problems, including algae blooms.

"Taking our farmlands out of production to pursue a plan that is not science-based will not fix the problems in the coastal estuaries," John L. Hundley, chairman of the cooperative and owner of Hundley Farms, Inc., said in a prepared statement. "Instead, taking fertile farmland will punish the thousands of hard-working farm families and farming businesses in our rural Everglades Agricultural Area."

Tuesday's meeting is the first of three committee stops planned in the Senate for the proposal. Negron stood with Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, and Rep. Larry Lee, D-Port St. Lucie, when announcing the proposal in August, but a House version of the bill has not been filed.

The 15 farmers who signed the letter represent 12 growers that each own more than 2,500 acres in the region, including U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals Corp.

In the letter, the growers contend the agricultural area "is not the cause of the algae blooms that occurred in South Florida estuaries."

Also, Keith Wedgworth, of Wedgworth Farms and EAA (Everglades Agricultural Area) Farmers, Inc. said the proposal could shut down at least two vegetable packing houses and a sugar mill in the farming region.

"Eliminating more farmland with the nation's most productive soils will hurt our local food supply and make us more reliant on imported food from foreign countries," Wedgworth said in a release accompanying the letter.

The Senate bill would require the state to exercise an option from a 2010 agreement on the sale of 60,000 acres from U.S. Sugar if "willing sellers" are not found for the land Negron is seeking.

The proposal would require the state to fund its share of the project by bonding $100 million a year through money voters approved for land preservation in 2014, a way of financing opposed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes.

The federal government would have to approve half the money for the project.