Sugar farmers respond to accusations that the blue-green algae crisis is their fault

Sugar growers say they're not polluting the water
Posted at 3:06 PM, Aug 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-19 15:06:38-04

Keith Wedgworth is a 4th generation farmer.  His family has been farming in Belle Glade since 1932.  He takes pride in his farming heritage.  You can see it in his eyes, and hear it in his voice. 

"From my grandfather's generation to my father's generation and now to my generation, we just try to be good stewards of the land," said Wedgworth who passionately defends his family's livelihood. 

He's also standing up for his fellow farmers in the Glades against the people pointing fingers at them for the algae crisis.

"All this water here in the Everglades Agricultural Area goes south," said Wedgworth.  "We do not back pump into the lake like everyone thinks." 

The South Florida Water Management District tests the water that does drain off of his land regularly.  It tests for nitrogen and phosphorous. Wedgworth says the water leaving his farm is cleaner than when he receives it.

He has seven pumping stations on his farms around Belle Glade, which collect water samples for the state to test.  The equipment cost $42,000.  There's also the on-going cost of operating and maintaining the pumps, as well as at least $300,000 per year in taxes related to water treatment and quality improvement. 

The sugar cane farmer also chooses rice as a rotational crop over other, more profitable produce, because it adds another layer of filtration.

Two of Wedgworth's family farms fall within the 60,000 acre area Senator Joe Negron wants the government to buy, so the state can start sending the water south in an effort to reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges into the St. Lucie River.  He and others in Belle Glade say that's not the solution; it would actually create a bigger crisis.

"You start taking 60,000 acres of sugar cane land out of production, it's gonna be detrimental to our environment, to our economic environment," said Bank of Belle Glade president Stephen Prielozny. 

Wedgworth added, "It would devastate the local communities.  Pahokee, South Bay, Belle Glade, Clewiston.  You close a mill down it's gonna be a domino effect.  Your local hardware store, your local parts store.  It all goes entwined and we need all the help we can get." 

Wedgworth and his neighbors in Belle Glade say they understand why people are angry about the algae crisis, but they say they are not the problem and they want to be part of the solution.