Big Sugar burns fields, bends DeSantis and FL Legislature to do its bidding

May 6, 2021 7:00 am

A tractor pulls carts of cut sugar cane past cane fields set afire to aid with harvesting. On Wednesday, Gov. DeSantis vetoed a bill that critics said was bad for the Everglades and overly friendly to Big Sugar. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When my kids were younger and in Boy Scouts, I enjoyed going camping with them around the state. We’d splash in the springs, paddle the rivers, tromp through the swamps. The day’s adventures would always end with a campfire – and a problem.

Campfires are essential to making s’mores, but oh, that smoke! Somehow the wind would blow it straight at us, switching around until everyone got a face full. Soon we were all hacking and coughing and trying to scramble out of its way. Fun times!

We had to put up with smoke for a couple of hours on an occasional Saturday night. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have smoke in your face day after day for months on end, which is what happens in the South Florida towns of Pahokee, South Bay, Clewiston, and Belle Glade.

From October to May every year, Florida’s sugar companies burn their 400,000 acres of fields to prepare for harvest, thus getting rid of the outer leaves of the cane stalks. It’s an old-fashioned practice that sends billows of smoke floating across these towns, showering down what residents refer to as “black snow” that coats their houses and cars and the lungs of the unlucky.

“It’s been going on so long that people are just accepting of it,” said Pahokee native and former mayor Colin Walkes. “These are mainly communities of Black and Brown residents. People have been living with these conditions for many years.”

But if the wind shifts so the smoke blows towards eastern Palm Beach County, where the wealthy white people live? That’s when the cane-burning rules created by the Florida Forest Service say the sugar companies have to stop burning.

Instead, if they still want to prep for the harvest, they must switch to a more expensive operation called “green harvesting” that doesn’t make soot fall like a dark curtain. Once the wind shifts back toward all the poor people’s homes, then it’s fine to start burning again.

Such an unjust arrangement works just fine for our state legislators.

In the just-ended session, the lawmakers passed a bill — with support from both parties — that makes it much harder for anyone harmed by all this soot to sue the sugar industry. They listened to the testimony of Walkes and others who pointed out the health risks and property damage, then voted for the bill.

Sure, our legislators failed to address our broken unemployment system. They spent a lot of time combating voter fraud without evidence any occurred. They banned transgender athletes to “fix” a non-existent problem.

But doggonit, they refused to let themselves get distracted from giving a major polluting industry a big break! You’ve got to admire their determination, don’t you?

Jeb Bush, 43rd governor of Florida, January 5, 1999 – January 2, 2007. Credit: Wikipedia.

That the Legislature would give Big Sugar whatever it wants is not unusual. Two decades ago, when Jeb Bush, R-Exclamation Point, was governor, the industry deployed 40 lobbyists — an army in Italian loafers — to persuade lawmakers to extend the deadline for cleaning up Everglades pollution from 2006 to 2026. The bill sailed through, and Bush — a self-described Everglades advocate — signed it behind closed doors.

In talking about those days, a veteran Audubon lobbyist named Charles Lee once told me, “The sugar industry owns everybody in Tallahassee, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican.” Jeb, he said, was no better or worse “than all the other governors and legislative leaders who have buckled under sugar’s pressure over the years.”

Say this for Jeb, though, and his successor Charlie Crist: Neither of them took a free hunting trip to Texas from a sugar company, the way former Gov. Rick Scott did.

That’s how Big Sugar wields so much power. As the Miami Herald reported in March, the industry spread around $11 million in campaign contributions in just 2020.

The House voted for the bill, 110-7, and the Senate passed it, 38-1. Ironically, the lone Senate no vote on the “Right to Farm” bill came from Sen. Gary Farmer.

Then it went to Gov. Ron DeSantis so he could sign or veto it. That’s where something curious occurred.

Joined at the hip to Big Sugar

Three years ago, Congressman DeSantis seemed like a longshot candidate for governor. Everyone assumed the guy who’d win the GOP race, and most likely the whole shebang, would be a veteran politician, red-headed Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Adam Putnam.

Big Sugar looooooved Putnam, a defender of everything ag-related. He began taking sugar industry money in his first political race in 1996 and never stopped. He took those free Texas hunting trips too, although he didn’t need such a gift. He was going to do what Big Sugar wanted anyway.

The industry did not seem to like DeSantis. As a conservative congressman, he’d voted against the federal price supports essential to maintaining their big profits. DeSantis got no sugar money for his campaign.

Then came the “Summer of Slime,” with toxic algae blooms mucking up tourism-related business across the state. People blamed the sugar industry for pollution fueling the blooms. Suddenly being Big Sugar’s best bud became a liability.

Former Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam. Credit: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services website

Yet Putnam continued taking sugar money and defending his pals, which led DeSantis to accuse Putnam of being joined at the hip with those dirty sugar barons. He was right.

DeSantis — who was also endorsed by an eastern Palm Beach County resident named Trump — won the GOP primary and then the general election. He took office as an anomaly: a Florida politician with no need to kowtow to Big Sugar. Some cynics wondered how long it would take for sugar to seduce him.

When DeSantis was sworn in as governor in 2019, he hired as his deputy chief of staff a young lawyer named Adrian Lukis. Lukis had been working as the senior adviser to the speaker of the state House, and prior to that for the Republican Party of Florida.

For someone hired to work for the supposed nemesis of Big Sugar, Lukis had an unusual family background. His father, Sylvester Lukis, runs the Washington office of lobbying firm Ballard Partners, where his client list includes U.S. Sugar.

Apparently, DeSantis has been happy with young Lukis’ work. In March, he promoted him to chief of staff. Yes, that’s right — the candidate known for fighting Big Sugar has become the politician whose top adviser is the son of a Big Sugar lobbyist.

This is like watching a slasher movie where everyone in the audience starts shouting, “The calls are coming from inside the governor’s office!”

I asked the governor’s press folks whether his chief of staff advised the governor about signing this pro-sugar bill. Here’s the non-responsive response I received from communications director Taryn Fenske: “Adrian’s father doesn’t lobby in Tallahassee, isn’t currently registered here, and when he was based in Florida, was based in Miami-Dade.”

When I pointed out that that didn’t tell me whether young Mr. Lukis advised the governor on the sugar bill, I got no response.

I emailed the elder Mr. Lukis, and he replied, “I do not discuss any, underline, any, Florida government issues that are subjects of executive or legislative action with my son Adrian.” Okay, duly noted.

Anyway, you’ll be about as shocked as Capt. Renault in “Casablanca” when I tell you that on April 29, DeSantis signed the bill into law. He did so, according to Fenske, because of its overwhelming support among legislators. No other reason.

Walkes, who somehow was not invited to the signing ceremony, said he wasn’t a bit surprised about DeSantis’ change of attitude toward Big Sugar.

“I see this as him holding to the party line,” he told me. Other influential Republicans did sugar’s bidding, so he did too.

Then Walkes noted another factor. A savvy pol planning a run for higher office, as DeSantis so clearly is, has to be thinking about paying for a big-dollar campaign, he said. Big Sugar may be stingy about fixing its pollution, but it has no qualms about dropping big bucks on Florida politicians.

“It’s just like that old saying,” he said, “dollars talk and you-know-what walks.”

Senator blowing smoke

Listen, I know farming is a tough way to turn a dollar. My parents grew up on farms in the Panhandle. One of my grandmothers was a Jackson County sharecropper.

Anyone who’s lived in Florida for more than 30 seconds can see how, thanks to poor or nonexistent government planning, urban sprawl has wiped out citrus groves, row crops and cattle pastures. The farmers who hang on wind up with neighbors who are more likely to drive a Subaru SUV than a John Deere tractor. Those folks then sniff the breeze and complain because they’ve suddenly discovered cows are stinky.

Fortunately, Florida already has a law that protects farmers from frivolous suits over the sights and smells that were already in place before all the cookie-cutter subdivisions came along.

That’s not what this latest “Right to Farm” bill was about, even though Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby egg farmer, called the changes merely “technical.” I dislike calling a man a liar, but Simpson’s statement is about as far from the truth as Pahokee is from Tallahassee.

One of those “technical” changes added the words “particle emissions” to the list of things no one can sue about. That’s a fancy term for “soot” or “black snow.” Another limits the radius for claims to a mere half a mile. A third caps the amount of damages.

State Rep. Omari Hardy. Credit: Florida House of Representatives

Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach, introduced a series of amendments that would change or eliminate those parts of the bill. Every single one was shot down. That’s a sign that these are not “technical” changes — they’re the heart of the bill.

What made this “Right to Make People Breathe Polluted Air Act” a must-pass bill is a federal suit against Big Sugar. In 2019, a pair of local landowners filed a proposed class action against a dozen sugar companies, contending their burning practices damage both property and human health. The suit, which has already survived a motion to dismiss, seeks monetary damages and an end to the burning, as well as requiring the companies to set up a medical monitoring program for the people who live in what I’m calling the Soot Belt.

A memo about the bill from a Senate committee staffer, obtained by the Miami Herald, specifically mentions that “a recent lawsuit against the sugar industry revealed that lawyers may try to find creative ways to sue for longstanding farming practices that everyone thought were protected under the right to farm act.”

You’ll be glad to hear that I, in my infinite wisdom, have come up with a creative solution to this problem. It’s pretty simple.

Remember those Florida Forest Service regulations about when they can burn? The Forest Service is under Putnam’s successor as agriculture commissioner, a Democrat named Nikki Fried, who wussed out of taking a position on the bill.

My solution is for Fried to order the Forest Service to reverse the order. When the wind is blowing toward the nearby towns full of poor people, the sugar companies would be forbidden to burn. They’ve done enough damage there. But when the wind blows toward the rich, white folks’ homes and businesses? Set those fields ablaze! Burn, baby, burn!

Then let’s see how long before they’re all coughing like a bunch of Boy Scouts around the world’s biggest campfire and so use their money and influence to make legislators snuff out this nasty smoking habit.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.