Sugar’s Sweet History in Florida
South Florida sugar cane acreage and production boomed in the early 1960s when the U.S. stopped importing sugar from Cuba. That was a much different scenario from sugar cane’s unspectacular introduction into North Florida nearly two centuries earlier.
“Florida’s first major sugar cane operations arrived while the British had possession of the territory in the 1700s,” reports the Florida Department of State website, Florida Memory. Colonial authorities handed out large land grants to British subjects willing to grow sugar cane and other crops along the St. Johns River.
When the United States took possession of Florida in 1821, planters from Virginia and the Carolinas moved into Florida and invested in sugar cane.
The North Florida planters learned that sugar cane is highly susceptible to freezing. “Over time, the risks associated with growing cane became too great for most planters to invest much money in the venture,” Florida Memory reports. “Many plantations continued to produce smaller amounts of sugar cane for home and local use, but large-scale cultivation of sugar cane was for the most part abandoned by 1840.” Even with a freeze, the sugar cane plants could be processed for cane juice, which could be made into molasses, rum or cane syrup. “The products became staples in the average Florida household,” Florida Memory states.
TWENTIETH CENTURY REVIVAL
“Sugar cane began to come back into the picture as a commercial enterprise around the turn of the 20th Century,” reports Florida Memory. “As settlers ventured farther south along the Florida Peninsula, they finally encountered areas that either rarely or never suffered from frost. These conditions would serve large-scale sugar cane production.”
The website reports that developers diverted rivers and drained large tracts of land – including parts of the Everglades ¬– for sugar cane cultivation. “By the 1920s, the sugar industry was up and running in earnest.”
The previously noted ban on Cuban sugar imports in the early 1960s gave Florida’s sugar industry its biggest boost ever. Cuba had previously been a significant source of sugar for the U.S.; Florida producers rushed to fill the void. Prior to the embargo on Cuban sugar, Florida had only 50,000 acres of sugar cane, reports a University of Florida (UF) website, An Overview of Florida Sugarcane. With consumers needing a new source for sugar, Florida’s acreage boomed to 454,400 acres in the 2000-01 crop year, the UF website states.
By 2014, the sugar cane land concentrated near Lake Okeechobee had dipped to 412,000 acres, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The lion’s share of sugar cane – 298,500 acres – is in Palm Beach County. The rest is in Hendry and Glades counties.
Because the production area is so compact, “most visitors to the Sunshine State never see a commercial sugarcane field,” the UF website states.