CLEWISTON – A Clewiston High School senior wrote the winning essay in Incubate Debate’s 2023 Essay Contest that will be read on the main stage at the Clewiston Sugar Festival on Saturday, March 18.
In January, Baleigh Padgett competed with 113 Hendry and Glades middle and high school students in Incubate Debate’s essay challenge how the sugar industry has benefited their communities.
Incubate Debate organizes no-cost tournaments and workshops for middle and high school students to build knowledge and confidence in appreciation for U.S. democracy.
The competition was held in conjunction with Clewiston Sugar Festival organizers in January.
"Baleigh's essay brilliantly explains sugar's role in Clewiston's economy, history, and culture,” said Incubate Debate Founder James Fishback.
“Baleigh and the 113 students who submitted essays each took time to explore, understand and explain sugar's impact on their community. It's a testament to what makes the students and schools of this part of our state so special."
Fishback and Clewiston Sugar Festival Director Julia du Plooy surprised Baleigh with a $500 check for her win during a surprise visit to her English class March 6.
Baleigh's essay below:
How has sugar shaped your community?
By Baleigh Padgett
Our community has been planting, growing, and harvesting sugar for more than 90 years. The rich muck soil around Lake Okeechobee is essential for sugarcane to grow. U.S. Sugar Corporation was not only our community’s, but the nation's first fully integrated refinery with the ability to take sugar processing straight from the fields to the consumer. It is responsible for the jobs of 2,500 people. Our rural community provides our nation with important staples of the food everyone eats. Our community is an homage to sugar and all it has provided. It fuels our town's economy.
U.S. Sugar Corporations was founded in 1931 by Charles Stewart Mott. He is responsible for establishing what is known as one of the most successful agribusiness operations in the U.S. He bought the failed sugar factory in our tiny town of Clewiston. He renewed the drainage systems and was profitable by 1941. He continued to set records as the most efficient single-tandem mill in the world; putting us on the map.
Clewiston is among Florida’s last true company towns. The sugarcane fields and the smokestacks from the factory are the only signs of our town. The air is filled with the smell of burning sugar, which most people in our town find comforting. Unlike other parts of Florida it is easy to find residents with deep ties to the area, whose ancestors arrived to pick sugarcane. Sugar has been the source of our jobs and opportunities since the beginning of our town.
Sugar is responsible for many community outreaches that strengthen and support the community we live in. Some include job opportunities for local high school students upon graduation. With programs like Take Stock in Children, public high school students can receive scholarships and mentorships. Included in these programs is ISTA; a three-year technical skills program that pays high school graduates to take classes. Upon completion of the program U.S. Sugar offers the graduates jobs in the industry. U.S. Sugar provides certifications to be eligible for their high skilled and high wage jobs.
The diversity in our community is largely in part to the many job opportunities offered to migrant workers and their families by U.S. Sugar Corporations. September in Clewiston offers mass hiring to hundreds of migrant workers. They come to our town for a better life and opportunities and U.S. Sugar can aid them in this dream. They are able to earn good paying jobs to support their families. Starter jobs include tractor drivers, who with time and experience, can become farm managers and eventually even entire area managers.
The sugar industry was the start of our town and community. We owe our livelihoods to a plant that happens to create sugar, something we all know and love. It affects all of the people in our area even if we don’t realize it. Sugar is the backbone to our town's economy. As we go through this sweet gift of life in our little town it's important to remember the reason we are here today.