Class of 1950, Belle Glade, FL
Green and White ingenuity, drive, determination and creativity transcends beyond the state of Michigan, across decades of alums and areas of expertise. My story is about two MSU graduates who have made a difference in Florida.
I graduated from Michigan State College in 1950 with a BS in Agricultural Engineering. Since I lost my father when I was 10 years old in a tragic agri-industrial accident, after graduating from college I felt compelled to return to my home in Belle Glade, FL to help my mother run the family farm. My Spartan ingenuity sparked the development of the first mechanized celery harvester transforming celery production. However, I wanted to accomplish bigger and better things.
Being a vegetable farmer was a roll of the dice where you are at the mercy of Mother Nature. I longed for stability in the agricultural business and found that by producing sugar, a crop where U.S. consumption outpaced production, we could diversify and gain greater returns. I convinced a number of my local fellow farmers to pool our modest resources together and formed a cooperative and built a sugar mill in the early 1960 -- thus the beginning of Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida.
After nearly 50 years, I joke that I'm the only one who hasn't had a promotion. I've been president and CEO since day one. I have overseen the expansions of the mill, the growth in harvested acres, the movement from hand to mechanical harvesting, formation of marketing cooperatives and navigation through the morass of environmental challenges.
Fast-forward 30 years, and fellow MSU alum Barbara (Brunson) Miedema (Class of 1980, BA Communications Arts & Sciences) joined the Cooperative creating the first position at the company in public affairs and communications. I recognized the need "my little Belle Glade farming company" to interface in a more sophisticated manner with the public, media and governmental entities. Farming in the middle of the historic Everglades footprint is an added challenge for any business, but especially one in the national spotlight.
I'm proud of the fact that she is the first female Vice President in a male dominated industry. She created her own department and work plan where she coordinates all internal and external communications utilizing public opinion research and focus groups to develop messaging and tracking for gauging effectiveness of communication strategies. She developed the company's first video, website and other collateral materials. However, the biggest feather in her cap is the role she played in defeating a Penny a Pound Constitutional Amendment that was on the general election ballot in 1996. If the amendment had passed, it would have effectively taxed sugar farming out of business.
She now focuses much of her time on water related issues including playing key roles in the development and passage of the state's 1994 Everglades Forever Act; the Congressionally approved Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in 2000; the development of state water quality standards; and today she sits on the Water Resource Advisory Commission that advises state and federal agencies on water policy for South Florida. Without these kinds of outreach and environmental stewardship activities, the Cooperative's members wouldn't be farming today.
But the farming business is more complicated than putting a seed in the ground and watching it grow. Just as important as diversification was in the 1960s, vertical integration became our mantra in the late 1990s as sugar prices stayed flat and the cost of doing business continued to escalate.
In 1998, along with fellow Florida-based sugar company Florida Crystals Corp., the Cooperative purchased Refined Sugars Inc. in Yonkers, NY. This allowed us to produce sugar from the farm fields to the dinner tables. This venture worked so well that further integration occurred with the 2001 acquisition of Tate & Lyle PLC's North American sugar refineries and the brand name of Domino sugar. The refining arm of the business was formed - American Sugar Refining, Inc. (ASR) with the marketing company Domino Foods, Inc. ASR became the premiere cane sugar refiner east of the Mississippi.
However we discovered a need for a nationwide footprint to serve companies like Wal-Mart and this led to the 2005 acquisition of C&H Sugar in Crockett, CA. But, we didn't stop there.
With the full-scale implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that opened the borders between Mexico, Canada and the U.S., ASR acquired Redpath Sugar in Canada in 2007 and San Nicolas sugar mill and refinery near Veracruz, Mexico in 2008. We are now positioned to compete under NAFTA by taking advantage of favorable prices at the raw or refined levels and passing on these earnings to our grower-owners.
The crown-jewel achievement occurred this summer with the acquisition of Tate and Lyle's European sugar interests including sugar refineries in London, England; Lisbon, Portugal; the Plaistow Syrup Manufacturing facility outside of London; a specialty worldwide engineering company; and the license to use the Tate & Lyle brand.
Our sugar refining business is the largest in the world with production capabilities at 6 million metric tons with overall employment at 5,255 jobs. The Cooperative's members grow sugarcane on 65,000 acres of land in Palm Beach County and produce 310,000 shorts tons of raw sugar annually. The Cooperative employs 550 fulltime and seasonal people with a payroll in excess of $20 million annually. In addition to being a top employer in Palm Beach County, the Cooperative is now part of an international powerhouse in the sugar business: something that is quite an amazing feat from a small town farm boy. Just look at how MSU alum working together can make a difference. Go Spartans!!!
George H. Wedgworth is president and CEO of Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. He graduated from Michigan State College in 1950 with a BS in Agricultural Engineering. He is married to Peggy (Rawls) Wedgworth who attended MSC from 1946-49 and held the women's swimming record in the freestyle, breaststroke and medley relay for more than two decades. Wedgworth's father, Herman Wedgworth received his Master's degree from Michigan State Agricultural College in 1928 in plant pathology and served on the faculty from 1928-1930 and married Ruth (Springer) Wedgworth whom he met while both attending MSU.
Barbara (Brunson) Miedema is Vice President Public Affairs and Communications of Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. She graduated from MSU in 1980 with a BA in Communication Arts and Sciences. She is married to Ron Miedema who received his BS from MSU in Natural Resource Management in 1979. He is a biologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.