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Sugar Harvest Begins in Florida Under Improved Conditions

October 23, 1991

CLEWISTON, Fla. (AP) _ Brown smoke billowed over Florida’s cane fields, mills cranked up and thousands of Caribbean men returned to hard labor swinging machetes as the annual sugar harvest began this week.

The burning of the cane and the harvest of the stalks that remain have been an October ritual since 1929, when the U.S. Sugar Corp. first planted cane in the dark muck left when swamps around Lake Okeechobee were drained.

The area produces one of every five teaspoons of sugar consumed in the United States, a total of more than 16 million tons of raw sugar last year.

That sweetness also has been the source of bitterness for generations. Growers have been accused of cheating workers, polluting the Everglades and getting fat on government subsidies.

This year, however, the industry hopes to improve its image by opening the harvest to unprecedented public scrutiny. And even the harshest critics of the industry agree that life in the cane fields is improving.

Under President J. Nelson Fairbanks, U.S. Sugar Corp. has spruced up its living quarters, improved safety and, beginning this year, provided workers with bar-coded cards that record their hours so computers can confirm their daily pay.

″If we’re doing anything wrong, our theme is, we’re going to correct it,″ Fairbanks said at company headquarters in Clewiston. The town of 5,200 is devoted to ″Big Sugar.″

Out in the fields, where supervisors have been accused of shaving hours in years past, workers said the time cards were a great move.

″It proves nobody’s cheating on nobody’s time,″ said Samuel Taylor, a 33- year-old supervisor with a wife and four sons to support back in Jamaica. ″Everybody say it’s good.″

One thing U.S. Sugar and its rivals haven’t changed is the backbreaking nature of cane-cutting. Growers turned to the Caribbean in 1947 after recruitment efforts throughout the South, chiefly aimed at blacks, failed to produce enough laborers. The Caribbean laborers must leave the United States when their work is done.

″It’s the hardest work I ever had,″ said Roy Palmer, a six-year veteran who rinsed black Everglades muck from his shirt and gloves after returning to the barracks he shares with 24 other men.

Palmer said he can take only one more season of swinging a machete and doubling over to slice and stack more than a ton of cane an hour.

Ishmael Walters, a 24-year-old who took a television, a videocassette recorder and $1,000 home to Jamaica last year, said he will come back as long as his body holds out.

″We persevere on it and make some money,″ he said, flashing a smile as he adjusted the machete-deflecting armor on his free hand and legs.

Oris King, 56, a labor supervisor and camp counselor for hundreds of his countrymen, said only a handful of men give up each season.

″It’s a camp life. They have to adapt,″ said King. ″Some say it’s too rough. If they rowdy or unhappy, we send them back home.″

King earned 60 cents an hour as a cutter when he began in 1961. He saved enough over the years to build a three-bedroom home in Jamaica.

Cutters now earn at least $5.38 an hour; U.S. Sugar cutters averaged $6.58 an hour last year, or about $5,000 over the six-month season.

The more their living and working conditions improve, the less the companies can afford them. Sugar growers brought in 9,100 foreign workers this year, 1,500 fewer than in 1990.

And for the first time, U.S. Sugar this year is harvesting most of its cane by machine.

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