Series: Black Snow
Big Sugar’s Burning Problem
This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with The Palm Beach Post. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.
Last year, the Florida Legislature was in the midst of an extraordinary push to protect the state’s farming industry from lawsuits over air pollution.
Supporters argued that the legislation was critical to protecting Florida’s agricultural businesses from “frivolous lawsuits.” But some lawmakers were skeptical, noting that residents of the state’s heartland who were bringing suit against sugar companies would feel their case anything but frivolous. At issue was the practice of cane burning, a harvesting method in which the sugar industry burns crops to rid the plants of their outer leaves. Florida produces more than half of America’s cane sugar and relies heavily on the technique, but residents in the largely Black and Hispanic communities nearby claim the resulting smoke and ash harms their health.
So, on a Wednesday morning in March, lawmakers heard testimony on the new bill. In a committee room in Tallahassee, Joaquin Almazan stepped to the microphone as a newly elected city commissioner in Belle Glade, the largest city in the sugar-rich Glades region, where the smoke drops “black snow” on residents throughout every burning season.
Almazan had won his seat just one week before the hearing. His victory was also a victory for the sugar industry, a political powerhouse that employs more than 12,000 workers in the area during harvest season. His rival, Steve Messam, opposed cane burning and sought to end the practice.
In a small town of 8,000 voters where political campaigns are generally sleepy, the contest emerged as the marquee race in an election for three seats on the city commission, contributing to record turnout and fueling big spending. In fact, each side raised more than $16,000, making the March election the most expensive in at least 15 years, according to an analysis of campaign finance records by The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica, which examined documents going back to 2006. That’s five times the amount of money typically raised by city commissioner candidates, after adjusting for inflation. While Messam relied on mostly small donations from more than 200 donors, Almazan tapped a much smaller pool of 40 contributors, with much of his campaign money coming from sugar and farming interests.
Those industry donors were among more than two dozen entities that gave identical amounts to candidates running for the two other city commission seats. Like Almazan, the two favored contenders in those races supported the sugar industry’s methods, saying that ending cane burning would lead to devastating job losses.
At the same time, political action committees aligned with the industry spent thousands of additional dollars to influence the election, with one group promoting business-friendly candidates and another attacking Messam.
The local campaign, which was underway while major legislation was pending before the state Legislature, provides a window onto how the industry cultivates political allies in the Glades who, in turn, help protect its interests in Tallahassee.
“A voice that is for or against the ag industry is 10 times more powerful coming from the Glades area than someone who is from outside the local area,” said Rick Asnani, a West Palm Beach-based political consultant, explaining the industry’s investment in local elections. “It is absolutely appropriate and logical that an industry is going to protect their industry, their reputation and their backyard.”
And indeed, once elected, Almazan emphasized his lifelong residence in the Glades when he asked lawmakers to support the bill.
“It’s sad, as we’ve seen too many times previously: Wealthy, out-of-town, so-called environment special interest groups are claiming to know what’s best for our community,” he told lawmakers. “In fact, they repeatedly argue against our city, our best interests, and repeatedly advocate for other solutions that will only bring us economic destruction, unemployment and food insecurity, and shutter local businesses.”
His testimony and that of other elected officials and residents in the Glades in support of the legislation would lead several Democrats to withdraw their objections, and the proposal sailed through the Legislature.
In response to questions for this story, Almazan said his run for office — and his testimony — were a natural extension of his advocacy as a member of the International Association of Machinists, a union representing sugar workers. “The union encourages its members to rise to challenges,” he said in a statement, “and I felt that by running for the City Commission I could do that.”
Asked about the donations from the agricultural industry, he said they’d been given because “I support similar interest, Community, workers and jobs.”
Now, nine months later, some Democratic lawmakers want to roll back last year’s key changes, which were aimed at barring so-called nuisance lawsuits against farmers. Under the state’s Right to Farm law, certain farming activities are protected from legal action, and the legislation added “particle emissions” to the list. The term is interchangeable with particulate matter, a known byproduct of cane burning and a type of pollution tied to heart and lung disease. Last month, state Rep. Anna Eskamani and state Sen. Gary Farmer introduced legislation to strike that language, hoping to bolster residents’ ability to sue.
It’s a reflection of the views of some Glades residents and environmental groups, who have battled the sugar industry for years over burning crops. They argue that the resulting smoke and ash harms their health — a claim that the sugar companies deny. Last year, The Post and ProPublica deployed their own air monitors to produce a first-of-its-kind investigation into cane burning. The readings showed repeated spikes in pollution on days when the state had authorized cane burning and smoke was projected to blow toward the sensors. These short-term spikes often reached four times the average pollution levels in the area. Experts said the results highlighted a need for more scrutiny from government agencies, which have access to better equipment and data.
The news organizations also found that in 2016, the state health department’s own researchers recommended deeper study of the potential health effects of cane burning on Glades residents, after finding that the burns release toxic air pollutants. Six years later, the department has yet to produce such a study and has not responded to questions about why.
In the Glades, the opposition to cane burning crystallized in 2015 into a “Stop the Burn” campaign, which was backed by the Sierra Club. The campaign involved rallies to press the industry to use an alternative method of cane harvesting that doesn’t involve fire. But the group’s events rarely amounted to more than a ripple in the state’s political landscape, where sugar companies are among the largest donors.
The “Stop the Burn” campaign’s claims drew attention when Messam, one of the group’s leaders, filed to run for an open seat on the Belle Glade city commission. He was born in the nearby town of Pahokee and grew up in the region, the son of Jamaican immigrants. His father worked in the sugar fields, cutting down cane by hand for 75 cents a row, he said.
When Messam left to attend Central Michigan University on a football scholarship, he said his teachers thought he had asthma because his breathing sounded difficult. His symptoms abated over time in Michigan. But when he returned home on Christmas break, during cane-burning season, “my allergies went haywire,” he later told supporters in a Facebook Live video on his campaign page. “At the time, I didn’t make the connection.”
In 2015, Messam and his family moved to Belle Glade from Greenacres, a city closer to the more populous part of Palm Beach County, east of the cane fields. He was working nearby as a senior vice president of his brother’s construction company, Messam Construction, and serving as a pastor at First Church of God South Bay. Before long, his wife, LoMiekia, who also grew up in the region but had spent much of the prior decade living outside Florida, started to get respiratory tract infections and their young son, Noah, developed allergies and needed a nebulizer to help him breathe. Doctors advised them to move, LoMiekia said in the video.
Messam said he reached out to the Sierra Club to learn more about what activists call “green harvesting,” in which sugar cane is harvested without burning. Harvesters cut the cane with the leaves still attached and separate them from the sugar-rich stalks. Some of the world’s leading sugar-producing nations, including Brazil, India and Thailand, have embraced this method as they move to end or sharply limit cane burning. Florida’s sugar companies, however, maintain that burning is safe and heavily regulated, and that it cannot be changed without significant economic impact.
In running for city commissioner, Messam saw a different future for Belle Glade. Switching to green harvesting in Florida would “be a win-win for the environment and the economy,” Messam said. While he understood that local officials have little power to regulate farming — those decisions are made at the state level — he knew that local voices carry weight in Tallahassee.
Relying on mostly small contributions, Messam raised a total of more than $16,000 from more than 200 donors. The Sierra Club’s political action committee in Florida made a $500 donation, and some of the group’s local supporters and a plaintiff in the sugar cane burning lawsuit also pitched in. Educators made up much of the campaign haul. His brother’s company contributed $1,000, the maximum under state law.
By contrast, his opponent in the race, Almazan, opposed the “Stop the Burn” effort and tapped his connections in labor circles and the agricultural sector.
In addition to being a member of the machinists union, he’s also the community action director of the Sugar Industry Labor Management Committee, a political organization that advocates for the union and local sugar companies, according to the union website. “Of course jobs in the sugar industry are important to me,” he said in an email to The Post, highlighting his union membership. “My dad retired from the sugar industry after 35 years and was proud to have raised his family here. I’m proud to have spent more than 30 years in the industry. My son is also building his career here.”
The sugar and agriculture industries also backed two other city commissioner candidates running for separate seats: Bishop Andrew “Kenny” Berry of Grace Fellowship Worship Center and incumbent Vice Mayor Mary Ross Wilkerson, who was first elected in 1998.
In 2018, candidates for city commission had raised about $3,200 each on average. The three industry-backed candidates in the 2021 race, however, each raised more than $15,000. The vast majority of each campaign’s funds — $13,100 — came from the same 28 individuals, committees and businesses, according to a Post/ProPublica analysis. Agriculture interests represented the single largest pool of money, making up about 40% of these contributions. Among them were the Sugar Cane Growers Co-Op; the Palm Beach Farm PAC, run by farmer and state Rep. Rick Roth, a co-introducer of last year’s legislation; and Hundley Farms, a grower in the Glades that produces sugar cane.
Some locals, including an incumbent facing an industry-backed challenger, took note of the heightened political activity in Belle Glade.
“I’ve never seen the sugar industry involved in any of the political affairs, when it came to campaigns and elections, like this time around here. Period,” said then-City Commissioner Johnny Burroughs Jr., speaking to voters in a Facebook Live video the night before the election. His campaign was struggling as industry allies supported his rival.
Asked about the industry donations, Almazan said in a statement, “I’m very thankful for the endorsements I received from major unions including the Palm-Beach Treasure Coast AFL-CIO and the Firefighters as well as support from family, friends, neighbors, local businesses and farmers who together are the backbone of our community.”
Berry and Wilkerson, the other two candidates who received significant contributions from sugar and agriculture groups, did not respond to a request for comment on their campaign donations.
According to campaign finance records, neither U.S. Sugar nor Florida Crystals, the state’s largest sugar producers, played a direct role in the election. But their allies did.
As the campaign progressed, Glades Together, a local political action committee, distributed voter guides and fliers promoting Almazan, along with the two other industry-backed candidates. The literature did not mention cane burning, instead emphasizing the local economy. “Our jobs and our future,” one flier read. “Do your part to protect ag jobs.”
The organization was formed by Sherrie Dulany, a former Belle Glade City Commissioner and school teacher. “When it became clear that outside organizations such as the Sierra Club were getting involved in our local election, we organized an effort to promote unity and our local economy,” Dulany told The Post and ProPublica in an email.
The sole source of the group’s funding during the election was Liberate Florida, a statewide political action committee financed largely by other PACs, including Florida Prosperity Fund. Among the latter group’s top donors is U.S. Sugar, which gave $75,000 in February, just as the Belle Glade election was heating up.
Meanwhile, a group called Urban Action Fund launched mailers targeting Messam. Like Glades Together, the group received funding from a political action committee with ties to Florida Prosperity Fund. The mail pieces didn’t mention sugar or cane burning but used black-and-white photos of Messam at “Stop the Burn” events.
“Steve Messam is part of the Sierra Club!” said one mailer. “We don’t need Steve Messam and outsiders who want to see our jobs and us go!”
“The Sierra Club’s job killing plan will hurt Glades families,” another mailer warned, leaving unsaid what the plan was or how it would impact the local economy. “Unemployment will make crime worse and hurt social services.”
John T. Fox, who chaired Urban Action Fund until it closed on Oct. 12, did not respond to an inquiry from The Post and ProPublica. The news organizations also sought comment from Florida Prosperity Fund’s chair, Brewster Bevis, who also serves as the president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida, a group representing business interests in the capital. A spokesperson said the organization “does not discuss political activity.”
The attacks grated on Messam. And on March 7, two nights before the election, he logged on to Facebook Live to address them. For an hour, he went point by point, rebutting what he called a “smear campaign.” More than 1,000 people watched.
Messam argued that green harvesting would create jobs and a new industry to convert sugar cane waste into new products. Sugar companies in the Glades do use leftover sugar cane fiber to make biodegradable paper plates and take-out containers, though industry allies argue there is no large-scale commercial use for the leaf material, the part of the plant that is burned. Producers in Brazil, however, have found ways to use this material as a source of renewable energy.
On election day, Almazan won, taking 60% of the vote. When asked about their role in the election, both U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals pointed to their efforts to encourage their employees to vote.
U.S. Sugar did not respond to questions about its donation to Florida Prosperity Fund, but company executive Judy Clayton Sanchez did offer a general statement on the election. “Glades residents elected three qualified candidates who have a track record of leadership in our community,” she said. “Elected candidates were full-time local residents with our communities’ best interest at heart and a history of protecting our rural way of life — not outsiders being influenced, directed and/or paid by out-of-town activists’ groups with anti-farming agendas.”
“While disappointing, it is not surprising that The Palm Beach Post would publish a story that challenges the validity of a fair and democratic election,” Florida Crystals said in a statement about this story. “The Palm Beach Post is not only attempting to undermine a free, fair and accessible election but also to harm the reputations of three highly regarded Glades leaders, the consequence of which will be a chilling effect on future leaders who will rethink entering public service.”
In the weeks after the election, agricultural and environmental groups pressed their cases in Tallahassee.
But, as the bill to protect farmers from lawsuits moved forward, former Pahokee Mayor Colin Walkes, who is on the leadership team of the Sierra Club’s “Stop The Burn” campaign, pushed back on assertions like Almazan’s — that outsiders were getting involved. He told lawmakers that locals were driving the anti-burn efforts.
“I want to dispel the myth that we, the locals who are opposed to the bill, are opposed to our industry,” Walkes said during a March 30 hearing. “We want to make sure that our industry thrives, but we want to ensure that we are taking care of the people that help the industry to thrive.”
On April 15, as lawmakers gave the legislation its last committee hearing, Almazan and his fellow elected officials from the Glades visited the state Capitol again. They were bused in by a group tied to the Belle Glade Chamber of Commerce. Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson led the charge.
Not passing the Right to Farm Act changes, Wilson claimed, would decimate the Glades.
Farming and the sugar industry are “key to the Glades community,” he said. “It’s our No. 1 economic engine. And if you stop that, trust me, you stop the community, a striving community.”
Wilson continued: “Do you think the people in the Glades are that naive, they will put themselves, their family members, their children at risk for the sake of industry or politicians?”
“I’ve lived all around our sugar fields, and my son’s out there,” he told lawmakers. “I wouldn’t raise my kids to be in a bad environment if I thought it was unhealthy. I would have been moved out of there a long time ago.”
Rep. Ramon Alexander, a Democrat from Tallahassee, had already voted against the bill in an earlier committee meeting, but changed his second vote to a “yes.” He noted that the locals supported the changes.
“On one end, we’re talking about the environment, which is important. On the other hand, we’re talking about grits, eggs, bacon and collard greens,” Alexander said. “My point is they are in that community, and this is their way. If you don’t work, you don’t eat, and I’m not going to take grits, eggs, bacon and collard greens off of somebody else’s table.”
Two of his Democratic colleagues also withdrew their objections after listening to the testimony.
“I came in this morning with a ‘no’ vote,” said Rep. Dianne Hart, a Democrat from Tampa, who noted the opposition from environmentalists. “However, I cannot in good conscience tell you what’s best for your community.” She later told the news organizations that she felt it was important to defer to the opinions of people like Almazan who live in the community.
At the hearing, Rep. Mike Gottlieb, a Democrat from Davie, agreed.
“I’ve been sitting here on my phone looking at environmental studies and particulate matter and so on and so forth,” he said, “but when you hear the testimony of the people who are living there and working there for 40 years … they’re not telling us about horrible environmental hazards that are causing death or premature death or breathing issues.”
He then addressed the bill’s sponsor: “I was a ‘no’ as I walked in here today, but hearing you and hearing the people who testified on behalf of your bill, I’m up today.”
A week later, the bill went to a vote in the House, which joined the Senate in passing the measure. The overall tally: 147-8.