Editor’s Note: US Sugar representatives felt the SRQ article “Headed South: The Long Road to Restoration in the Everglades” did not fairly represent the company. SRQ reached out to the company multiple times but did not receive immediate response. After the article was published, Judy Clayton Sanchez, senior director of corporate communications and public affairs for US Sugar, was offered the opportunity to respond. An edited version of this letter appears in the September issue of SRQ: The Magazine. Here is Sanchez’s response, presented unabridged.

“Headed South” a One-Sided Story that Inaccurately Portrays Florida Sugarcane Farmers and Water Issues

By Judy Clayton Sanchez

Michael Adno’s recent story, “Headed South,” was filled with inaccuracies and misleading claims. Despite mentioning U.S. Sugar by name and implying our farmers are somehow responsible for the discharges and the blue-green algae crisis, the writer did not even attempt to give us the chance to respond. As a result, we would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight.

First, the story erroneously implies that Lake Okeechobee water is somehow creeping toward Sarasota County. Water rarely flows uphill. Adno also claims that the Everglades was drained for agricultural development while neglecting to mention that there is far more historic Everglades under housing and urban development than under farm fields. For proof, remember that everything west of I-95 on the east coast (all the numerous suburban communities of western Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties) is precious former swampland.

The article also mischaracterizes the U.S. Sugar land acquisition proposed by former Governor Charlie Crist. In 2008, U.S. Sugar and the state of Florida signed a contract for the purchase of 187,000 acres of land that was never fully exercised by the state—due to changing economics and restoration priorities. In 2010, the state purchased 27,000 acres, bringing its total of formerly productive farmland being used for Everglades restoration efforts up to 120,000 acres. In 2015, after considering the scientific and engineering merits of optioning another 47,000 acres of U.S. Sugar’s property, both the state and South Florida Water Management District decided against buying the land. By this time, ongoing restoration efforts did not need additional land south of Lake Okeechobee. The remaining option would require buying the remaining 153,000 acres by 2020. There is no approved or pending engineering plan or project that requires purchasing additional farmland in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

Adno also repeats the discredited idea that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ discharging excess rainfall from north of the Lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries is the fault of sugarcane farmers south of the Lake. Linking “the amount of pollution coursing through Lee County” with the supposedly growing “grasp” on the state by sugarcane farmers is a non-sequitur. According to 20 years of data provided by the South Florida Water Management District, less than 5 percent of the water and the nutrients added to Lake Okeechobee come from the communities south of the lake. Far from what this article suggests, U.S. Sugar’s farmers have, in fact, been reducing phosphorus by an average of 56 percent every year for the last 20 years. Farmers achieved a 79 percent phosphorus in 2015 – the highest in history. Sugarcane farmers are doing their part to help restore the Everglades.

Furthermore, American consumers are NOT paying double what they should for sugar. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture, the cost of sugar on the world market and the cost of sugar domestically converged in June of this year. In June, the cost of sugar on the world market was 29.96 cents per pound, which includes the cost of shipping the sugar to the buyer. The cost of sugar domestically in June was 29.75 cents.

Adno downplays the impact of sugarcane farming on Florida’s economy. Farming is a pillar of Florida economy and provides 1.35 million jobs. Of those, 12,500 are jobs directly tied to the sugarcane industry, which has an estimated $3.27 billion economic impact annually—one of the state’s top agricultural economic engines. Additionally, area farmers grow more than sugarcane in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). Sweet corn, green beans, rice and other vegetable crops make this area the Winter Vegetable Capital of the U.S.

We have no idea where Adno got his data on pollution levels in Florida’s waterways because he paints a completely different picture than the one depicted by the scientific data released by the South Florida Water Management District and the University of Florida. Thanks to best management practices (BMPs) by EAA farmers and the State’s 60,000 acres of wetland treatment, more than 90 percent of the water in the Florida Everglades today is meeting the stringent 10 parts per billion phosphorus standard.

In describing the algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee, he fails to mention that the algae on the lake is thin and easily dispersed—far from the thick green slime shown in coastal Martin County. Local fishing guides say fishing on the Lake has never been better.

Adno also completely misrepresents the University of Florida’s Water Institute Report. University of Florida researcher Jack Payne wrote recently in the Stuart News that the study “did not recommend a particular course of action”—only a series of recommendations.

One concept the UF Report was clear about was the flow-way (or “sheet flow”), which the article dishonestly claims is “necessary.” Not so, according to the UF report, which found “independent assessments suggest that an expansive, gravity-driven wet flow-way throughout the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) may not be feasible or provide maximum benefits to the estuaries.”

Finally, Mr. Adno takes a parting shot by suggest that sugarcane farming is harmful to air quality. Contrary to this claim, mountains of independent public health research suggest that the Glades area enjoys some of the best air quality in the state. In fact, a 2015 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that Hendry and Glade Counties are now tied for number one in environmental quality statewide.

Sound-bites critical of Florida’s sugarcane farmers by environmental activists are expected. We appreciate the opportunity to respond and encourage readers to learn more about what U.S. Sugar’s farmers are doing to help restore the Everglades by visiting ussugar.com.

Judy Clayton Sanchez is the Senior Director of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs for U.S. Sugar.