Land deal could lift U.S. Sugar's sagging fortunes

CLEWISTON -- Barons, titans, giants -- Florida's politically powerful sugar industry has worn a lot of lofty labels over the years.

Here's one rarely heard: struggling.

In recent years, Big Sugar has pocketed smaller and smaller profits. U.S. Sugar Corp., the nation's oldest and largest grower, has actually forecast a $4.5 million loss for this year, according to a company financial report obtained by The Miami Herald.

Now, the company is on the cusp of signing a landmark $1.34 billion contract to sell much of its sprawling sugar and citrus empire to the state for Everglades restoration. South Florida water managers could vote on the deal, which would be the largest conservation land buy in state history, as early as next month.

For environmentalists, the sugar lands represent no less than the ''holy grail'' of Everglades restoration. But the deal has some skeptics -- most notably competing growers and the Miccosukee Tribe, which contend that the land buy is also a company bailout.

The state and company dismiss the criticism, saying the deal strikes a fair price and balances protection of the Everglades from agricultural and suburban pollution with preservation of farm jobs critical to the economy of a poor rural region.

''We've worked hard to get the very best deal we can for taxpayers,'' said Mike Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, who participated in negotiations that began in secret more than a year ago, when Gov. Charlie Crist initially proposed a buyout of the venerable company lock, stock and sugar bowl.

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