Clipped From South Florida Sun Sentinel
U.S. Sugar closing vegetable grower By ROBERT McCABE Business Writer South Bay Growers, the vegetable farming subsidiary of U.S. Sugar Corp., will close on Sept. 4, resulting in the layoffs of 1,336 workers. U.S. Sugar Corp. announced its withdrawal from the vegetable-growing business on Wednesday, citing a steady series of losses over the past few years. South Bay Growers, which grows lettuce, celery and other leafy vegetables, is in South Bay, a town of about 4,000 just southeast of Lake Okeechobee. It is the community's largest employer, with 1,482 full-time and seasonal workers, and an annual payroll of about $17 million, according to U.S. Sugar. "The closing of South Bay Growers is a tragedy," said J. Nelson Fairbanks, president of U.S. Sugar Corp., in a prepared statement. "It is one of the largest layoffs by a Florida company in recent years, similar to Pan American, Centrust and Pratt & Whitney." Acquired by U.S. Sugar in 1980, South Bay has been one of the nation's major producers of vegetables. During the winter months, the company grew about 13 percent of the leafy vegetables consumed in the United States, according to U.S. Sugar. South Bay has 270 full-time workers, excluding employees at its salad-processing plant, and 1,066 seasonal workers. About 65 percent of the seasonal workers live in the South Bay area . year-round, while 35 percent are workers who migrate around the country. The only part of South Bay Growers' operation that will remain open is its salad-processing plant, which employs 146 people and sells ready-made salads to companies such as McDonald's and Burger King. Fairbanks said the decision to close the unit was extremely difficult but was driven by the fact that South Bay had including $10.6 million in losses to date this year. South Bay, whose growing season generally lasted from November to May, was at a disadvantage with its primary competitors in California and Arizona who grow year-round, Fairbanks said. Unlike many tomato growers in Florida, South Bay Growers was not affected by a surge of competing products from Mexico. "Mexico did not cause the demise of South Bay lettuce and celery," Fairbanks said. He said that increasing government regulation of environmental and labor issues related to farming were contributing factors in the decision to close South Bay. "They were people I was figuring would stay in this business forever," said John Thomas, 73, president of Thomas Produce in Boca Raton and one of the top 100 in the nation.