In the midst of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to overlook the Glades. Fortunately, the cities of Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay are blessed to have agriculture as their primary industry, which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security calls part of “our nation’s critical infrastructure.” The jobs and benefits provided by sugar and vegetable farming are essential in helping us get through these difficult times.
The Glades is built on agriculture. Our cities may be small, but our communities are close-knit. Everybody knows someone who knows someone in the Glades. It’s these bonds forged through our churches, schools, social organizations and community events that make it easy for a resident to know his or her mayor, a small business owner to walk into a local bank and talk directly with the bank’s president, and a locally elected official to pick up the phone and reach out to a business or community leader to address problems and get things done.
The Glades community relies on its prime industries — sugar and vegetable production. They are our economic drivers, the source of high-tech, good paying jobs and health benefits. More importantly, they are our neighbors. They participate in community initiatives, like “Neighbors Helping Neighbors,” a feeding program in which U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals and Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida donate fresh food to local restaurants, which provide hot meals to those in need. Some people living outside of the Glades may not understand our close connection with farm operations, but we know better. Agriculture has been and continues to cooperate with us.
The Glades’ location epitomizes a form of social distancing, and that geographic isolation has helped in slowing the spread of the virus here. To date, we have about 75 confirmed cases of coronavirus, a small number but one that could change as the outbreak peaks. We have followed federal health guidelines, state and county emergency orders and have encouraged our residents to practice social distancing and shelter in place, with mixed results. We are concerned about a surge and its impact on our two regional hospitals. As our state and county receive federal assistance to combat the virus, the Glades must get its fair share.
We also have a more immediate problem that our cities share with other communities throughout Florida: accessing state unemployment benefits. The Glades is home to many smaller, support businesses, such as auto mechanics, barbers, beauty shops, diners, florists and nail salons. Without a viable market and any job openings that might be available in more populated areas, the impact of delayed unemployment checks is felt more acutely here. Gov. Ron DeSantis’s recent announcement of fixes to the program is promising. We hope his fix works and is quick.
Finally, farmers across America need ongoing assistance and protection. Palm Beach County leads the nation in producing sugarcane, fresh sweet corn and sweet bell peppers, and leads the state in rice, lettuce, radishes, Chinese vegetables, celery and specialty leaf crops. Unfortunately, farmers and food processors are already taking a hit as schools and restaurants remain shuttered. It could get worse if there’s a surge in the virus.
“We’re all in this together!”
That’s the mantra getting us through the worst of the pandemic. We are doing our part as a rural community. All we ask of our peers along the county’s east coast is to remember the Glades as we continue to combat the virus.
Steve B. Wilson is mayor of Belle Glade, Joe Kyles is mayor of South Bay and Regina Bohlen is a Pahokee city commissioner.