The Beginning

The Wedgworth family’s roots in farming and the related agricultural businesses are both deep and significant. The family’s heritage is steeped in scientific research and innovation that’s being carried out today by third and fourth generation members of the family in its farm and agribusiness operations. In 1930 when the Wedgworth family came to Belle Glade, FL, corporate farming was in its infancy. However, Herman H. Wedgworth’s involvement as the first plant pathologist at the University of Florida’s Everglades Experiment Station located along the southeastern rim of Lake Okeechobee outside of Belle Glade led the way for commercial production to take root.

Wedgworth was tasked with solving an agronomic problem: why were winter vegetable crops not thriving in the rich organic soils of the Glades? He found the answer in his work with Dr. Robert Allison who determined that minor elements such as copper and manganese were missing in the soil profile. By adding these minor elements commercial farming could prosper. Two years later seeing the opportunity in farming the land, Herman set out to acquire land and start his own farm. As a pioneer in the Glades, he tamed the land, built roads, dug canals and drainage ditches and tilled the soil to grow the crops that the Glades are now famous for. Being an enterprising entrepreneur, he opened the Wedgworth Fertilizer Plant, the Wedgworth Supply House and a vegetable packing house in 1932 to provide everything from seed to equipment for local growers.

The Beginning of the Big “W” Brand

Herman Wedgworth’s work at the University of Florida’s Everglades Experiment Station led to the development of custom blending of fertilizer for Glades area farmers as well as the Big W Brand of fertilizer. This enterprise started in his barn in the back yard of the original farm where he custom mixed fertilizer with minor elements in a wheel barrel and a shovel. The demand grew for his product, and this new business filled a vacuum in the marketplace.

By the mid-1930s, Wedgworth Inc.’s fertilizer plant was built in the heart of Belle Glade. He sourced his raw materials and became the primary supplier of agri-nutrients for the blossoming Glades area farming industry. By 1976, the plant was blending 30,000 tons of products per year. Today, the Big W Brand Fertilizer has grown seven-fold to 200,000 tons per year and is a staple among farmers throughout Florida.

By 1938, the Wedgworth family were growing a variety of winter vegetables, mostly celery, on almost 2,000 acres, shipping nearly half a million packages to market each year. With Ruth working beside her husband in most phases of the agricultural operation, the couple was reaping the benefits of six years of struggle and hard work when tragedy struck. Herman Wedgworth was fatally injured in an accident while hoisting a ten-ton ice machine to the top of the new ice storage building at the packing house. Bravely looking to the future, Mrs. Ruth Springer Wedgworth carried on devoting her life to her three children and the unfinished work of running the farm and related businesses. She overcame great financial difficulties and the many vagaries of weather with the help of her loyal workers and toiled through the tough times to become a successful farmer and business person.

Farming in the Glades

World War II provided Ruth Wedgworth with an opportunity to market her winter produce to the troops. She was awarded for the high production of vegetables that allowed her to reduce the family’s debt and build the business. However, her work didn’t stop at the farm. She served her community by being an active player in education, health care, and her church. Ruth Wedgworth raised her three children and brought them into the family business.

During the next decade the Glades farming operation grew with the acquisition of additional acreage and diversifying of crops to mitigate risks. In addition to celery production, the operation included a cattle operation, spawned from a high school 4-H project, and sugarcane production. In 1950, George Herman Wedgworth, her only son returned to the family’s agricultural operation with a degree in agricultural engineering from Michigan State College (now Michigan State University). George’s first task was managing the celery operation. A quick learner and visionary, he quickly realized that there had to be a better way to harvest and pack celery. He stayed up nights at his drafting table drawing the plans for the development of the first mechanical celery harvester. He convinced Vernie Boots with mechanical knowledge to help him build the machine. This keen insight into mechanical harvesting helped innovate the entire Florida farming industry. He also recognized the value of cooperative marketing arrangements and created the Florida Celery Exchange. Over the next ten years, Wedgworth Farms, Inc. grew its land base and gradually moved into sugarcane production. In 1960, while at the helm of Wedgworth Farms, George convinced a group of Glades area vegetable farmers that sugar production was the most viable and stable crop for the future and founded Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. The Cooperative’s primary functions are the harvesting, transporting and processing of the grower-members sugarcane and the marketing of the raw sugar to one of its co-owned American Sugar, Inc. sugar refineries. As George was busy building the Cooperative’s business, he handed off the daily operations of the family farm to a professional management team yet he and his mother remained active in the family businesses.

Modern Day Operations

By the late 1970s, the farm operations had grown to 10,000 acres of sugarcane and the 3,000 head of cattle were relocated to the newly purchased 10,000 acres of ranch lands located in Osceola, Indian River and Highlands counties.

Ruth Springer Wedgworth’s work ethic was the hallmark of her career and the legacy she has left for the future generations. She kept an office at the farm and came to work virtually every day until her death in 1995 at the age of 92. During her career, she served on the Florida Citizen’s Commission on Education, the Governor’s Committee on Migrant Workers, a Trustee at Florida Southern College, Palm Beach County School Board as well as many other local groups and organizations. In 1975, her hard work and innovation was rewarded by being honored as the first woman named Belle Glade’s “Man of the Year.” Her recognition continued over the years, as she was named “Woman of the Year in Agriculture” by Progressive Farmer Magazine and “Woman of the Year in Florida Agriculture” in 1986, as well as the recipient of a Distinguished Service Award from the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association. Then, in 1988, she was inducted into the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame. George followed in his mother’s footsteps, being inducted into the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame in 1994 and has received numerous other honors including Sugar Man of the Year in 2005 and Palm Beach County Business Leader of the year in 2011.

Today, George’s youngest son Dennis manages the 20,000 acre farm and ranch lands and Wedgworth’s, Inc., Florida’s largest blended fertilizer company. Dennis was born and raised in Belle Glade, and he went on to earn a degree in engineering from Duke University in 1974 and earned his MBA from the University of Florida in 1977. He returned to the family businesses and worked to grow the company into the premier custom blended fertilizer company in the southeast United States.

Dennis has served as chairman and board member of the Florida Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association; board member of Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida; Florida Leadership & Education Foundation; University of Florida Institute of Food and Sciences Advisory Committee, Florida Farm Bureau and Rotary Club. His understanding of the science behind farming coupled with his business acumen make him uniquely qualified to lead the cutting edge custom fertilizer business.

Keith Wedgworth, a fourth generation family member joined the company in 1999 after earning a Master’s Degree in Agricultural and Food Resource Economics from the University of Florida. Katie W. Bryson, Dennis’ youngest daughter, is also a fourth generation family member that joined the company after graduating from the University of Florida in 2004. They have both demonstrated commitment to the family values of hard work and community service by taking leadership roles in different organizations both locally and throughout the state. They continue to carry on the Wedgworth family tradition of offering quality products and services to Florida’s agricultural producers.