Florida to buy U.S. Sugar Corp. for $1.75 billion

by Ron Sterk
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CLEWISTON, FLA. — Florida Governor Charlie Crist and United States Sugar Corp. chief executive officer Robert Buker yesterday announced an agreement under which the state would buy the company in a transaction valued at $1.75 billion and shut it down in six years as part of the Everglades restoration project.

A "statement of principle" was signed June 24 and the transaction is expected to be completed by September.

The proposed agreement involves the public purchase of nearly 300 square miles of land (187,000 acres) as well as U.S. Sugar’s assets, which include a state-of-the-art sugar mill, sugar refinery and citrus processing plant and 200 miles of railroad, according to the South Florida Water Management District, which will invest $1.75 billion in cash and certificates of participation to finance the purchase.

U.S. Sugar is the nation’s largest producer of sugar cane and refined cane sugar and one of Florida’s major orange and orange products producers.

"Dependent upon weather, growing conditions and federal market allocations, U.S. sugar produces 700,000 tons of cane sugar a year, providing nearly 10% of the sugar produced in America," the company’s web site said.

Its citrus company, Southern Gardens Citrus, owns one of the largest citrus groves in the United States with more than three million trees on 30,000 acres. The juice plant produces more than 120 million gallons of orange juice annually.

The agreement was announced prior to the start of the 2008 Serve to Preserve Florida Summit on Global Climate, which begins today in Miami.

"The proposal announced by Governor Crist is the right thing for the state of Florida and appears to be at a fair price for our shareholders," U.S. Sugar said. The acquisition "should allow remaining Everglades Agricultural Area farmers and the Everglades to be sustainable," the company said.

U.S. Sugar’s holdings in the Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee is at the "virtual hard of the ecosystem," the company said.

However, the agreement will not end sugar production in the Everglades since at least 250,000 acres of land used by other companies will remain in production, U.S. Sugar said.

"Although many of the details of the proposal need to be worked out, we expect to operate our business for at least a six-year transition period," the company said. "This will enable us to fulfill our long-term existing business obligations."

U.S. Sugar has about 1,700 employees.

"This is a bittersweet moment for a company that has been farming this land for more than four generations," U.S. Sugar said.

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