Sugar Cane: Hard Work, Sweet Result

Sugar cane is a crop like no other in the U.S.

By Des Keller | Photos By Michael DeHoog

I have been riding with farm manager Ruben Rifa in his pickup for nearly an hour in South Florida near Clewiston, touring 10s of thousands of acres of flat sugar cane fields. The cane crop itself, often more than 10 feet high, consistently blocks the view in any direction.

Once it’s harvested, cane is rushed to processing via a combination of tractor fleets and railcars.

Once it’s harvested, cane is rushed to processing via a combination of tractor fleets and railcars.

Should Rifa decide to abandon me in this subtropical sun amid dense cane fields crisscrossed with dark-water canals that provide habitat to resident alligators, water moccasins and the occasional Florida panther, my demise would not be sweet. Oh, the irony.

This is the world of U.S. Sugar, the largest producer of sugar in the U.S. Based in Clewiston, on the southwest shore of Lake Okeechobee, U.S. Sugar grows cane on as much as 200,000 acres in a given year and processes every bit of it into granulated sugar, molasses and liquid sweetener right in Clewiston.

The effort to do so is meticulously planned because it has to be. Unlike corn, soybeans or wheat, which can be safely stored for months, sugar cane should be processed within 7.5 hours from the time it is cut. The process of cutting the cane gives bacteria from the soil ready access to feed on the cane’s sucrose—creating glucose polymers known as dextran.

“Dextran affects the amount of recoverable sugars, which in turn makes it more difficult to process cane,” says Rifa, who manages the 38,000-acre Area 2 of U.S. Sugar’s six management zones. “This can result in significant losses of production.”

Or as U.S. Sugar’s Harvest Operations Manager Juan Cervera says, “If you leave a train car full of cane sitting too long, you begin to smell the change.”

As a result, U.S. Sugar’s cane harvest is timed to cut just enough cane to supply a steady stream of product to be processed without delay. Harvest, which generally begins in October, will continue well into April and runs 24 hours per day, weather permitting.

Typically from late September through January, sugar cane stalks are planted into furrows by hand.

Typically from late September through January, sugar cane stalks are planted into furrows by hand.

The harvest for U.S. Sugar is greatly helped by the existence of its multiple spur rail lines that allow wagonloads of cane to be dumped into train cars at numerous elevators (43 sites) spread out over a 200-square-mile production region. Every bit of their harvested cane is then delivered to the processing/refining plant via rail.

The company’s Clewiston facility then ships finished sugar products, from five-pound bags of various brands of granulated sugar to bulk tanker cars of liquid sweetener and molasses all over the U.S.

Sugar’s perishable nature once cut isn’t the only dissimilarity to other row crops. One planting of sugar cane can be cut three or four times over the same number of years before the land is either replanted to new cane for another three to four years or rotated to another crop for one year.

Additionally, sugar cane—like corn, a member of the grass family—doesn’t produce seed, per se. Planting is done by hand and involves nine to 10 workers in the back of a wagon loaded with sugar cane stalks, which are laid down in overlapping sections in a furrow 8 inches deep.

Additional employees, four per wagon, walk behind with machetes and chop the several-foot-long sections into smaller pieces as they lay in the furrow. New cane shoots will sprout up from several joints on each piece of cane.

“This is very labor intensive,” says Trey Dyess of Glades Planting LLC. Glades is one of a handful of U.S. Sugar subcontractors that do all the planting. Dyess, along with father Sermon Dyess, and brother-in-law Jeff Edwards, own and operate Glades Planting. Glades handles all the hiring for four, 50-person crews, and owns or leases all the planting equipment.

Cane will be planted beginning in September and continue for four months. Fertilizer is applied in-furrow at planting—the amounts dictated by soil tests. The furrow is filled in and the bed is flat, not mounded or ridged. Both mechanical cultivation and chemicals will be used to keep weeds at bay.

The most problematic weeds, according to Rifa, are fall panicum and guinea grass, while orange and brown rusts are disease issues. A healthy stand of cane might have 70 stalks per 10 feet, and the row spacing is 5 feet.

While yield for most crops is assessed in terms of bushels per acre, that doesn’t cut it as a measure for sugar cane. An acre of sugar cane might produce 38 tons of cane per harvest.

While you may assume a region like South Florida gets plenty of moisture, the rains can be spotty and, like June of this past year, almost nonexistent. That’s why numerous decades-old canals were built beside the fields. Surface water is pumped into the canals to raise the water table in the fields to help get moisture to roots. The canals are also used to drain excess water during heavy rains.

Though subject to quick deterioration once harvested, sugar cane is hardy while growing and generally thrives in the sun with plenty of moisture. U.S. Sugar grows cane in ground that ranges from highly organic dark “muck” to bleached-out sandy soil.

“If you don’t get rain, you do have problems on sandy soils,” says Rifa. “You can only do so much with raising the water table.” Oh, and if those muck soils get dry enough, they might actually catch on fire. That’s right, it is so loaded with organic material, the soil itself can burn. While so-called “muck fires” aren’t frequent, “they happen more than you’d think,” says Rifa.

Ray Elliot, a supervisor with Glades, oversees some of the company’s planting operations.

Ray Elliot, a supervisor with Glades, oversees some of the company’s planting operations.

Intentional fires also play a critical role in sugar production. Controlled burns are used just prior to harvest to remove foliage on the cane and any ground clutter. The leaves burn off the plant but the cane itself isn’t damaged. The fire reduces the weight of the material being harvested as well as the amount of plant material run through the crushing and refining process.

As it is, the fibrous plant material left after the cane is crushed and processed—known as bagasse—is used as fuel to operate the refinery.

Near the end of the day, Rifa is showing me the fields where they grow seedstock sugar cane for the years to come. Researchers at the University of Florida and the USDA help the company and others test new varieties of cane that might require less water and are known to be disease-free.

“I’ll harvest sections of this plot and move them to different parts of the operation and plant as seed,” says Rifa. “One acre of seed plants produces about 8 acres of sugar cane. I want to build up enough of the seedstock so I can expand it, so I always have disease-free cane.”

Asked if he ever gets lost among the 38,000 acres he supervises, Rifa laughs and says, “No. Believe it or not, when you deal with this every day, I even know the varieties in the fields by memory.”

We believe him.