It’s a common sight in rural South Florida during harvest season: large plumes of black smoke penetrating an otherwise clear blue sky. Pre-harvest burning is said to be the most economical and feasible method of preparing sugarcane before it is ready for harvest, according to growers and industry leaders.
Burning the stalks before harvest easily removes cane leaves which accumulate during the growing period. In South Florida, cane burns usually begin in October and last through April.
The burns are regulated by the Florida Forest Service using rules implemented by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Growers are required to pull permits before each prescribed burn, which take into consideration the speed and direction of the wind on that specific day.
Despite these regulations, some agencies and residents still worry about the potentially detrimental effects cane burning can have on the residents who live nearby.
The Sierra Club has started a campaign, “Stop Sugar Field Burning,” to shed light on the potential health risks associated with cane burning and to help steer the industry towards alternative harvesting methods.
The Sierra Club cites studies conducted in Mexico and Brazil which have reportedly shown an increase in particle pollution from sugarcane burning and that those particles have led to cardiorespiratory diseases in rats.
Brazil, as well as Australia, have shied away from using pre-harvest burning in many areas and have moved towards green harvesting, where the leaves are cut from the stalks and left in the fields as organic matter.
But sugarcane growers contend this is not an option for South Florida because of its muck soil and tendency to reach near-freezing temperatures in the winter.
Leaving the leafy material in the fields reportedly forms a dense mat of vegetation that adds extra moisture to the already mucky soil and prevents the earth’s natural heat from radiating upward to warm new sugarcane seedlings during near-freeze events.
As for air quality, Hendry, Glades and Palm Beach counties enjoy some of the best air quality in the state, according to County Health Rankings released by the University of Wisconsin and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
According to those rankings, Hendry County comes in at number three in the state for physical environment, which includes air pollution; Glades County comes in as number two; and Palm Beach County number 24.
But the Sierra Club says chemicals produced during the burns are not monitored in these areas and, therefore, not documented.
Julia Hathaway, organizing representative with the Sierra Club in South Florida, said the organization is trying to participate in community conversation about pre-harvest burning, whether there are other methods that could be used in Florida and what those methods could be.
The club, she said, is not trying to come in as outsiders to put anyone out of business.
“We’re trying to do our homework. We’re working with consultants to see what would be in the realm of possibility for Florida. Once we’re sufficiently educated, we want to see if the growers will talk to us,” said Hathaway, though she is not convinced the growers will.
Local sugarcane growers, as well as those who work in the sugarcane industry, worry the Sierra Club and organizations like it are trying to destroy their livelihoods.
Brad Lundy, a third generation sugarcane farmer and member of the co-op Independent Harvesting, said pre-harvest burning is extremely important to all sugarcane farmers because it is the safest and most cost effective way to harvest.
“In our environment there are no other feasible methods at this time. I don’t think they [the Sierra Club] are going after just this method. I think it’s an attack on sugarcane farmers,” said Lundy.
Lundy said the agriculture industry in South Florida, especially for towns like Clewiston, is imperative for the survival of the community.
“It’s not just the jobs in the field or the jobs in the mill. It’s their spouses at the bank, the local hotel, the schools, the city marina. There’s an infrastructure from the agricultural community that makes it possible for others to have opportunities,” said Lundy. “It is discouraging when you have outsiders who don’t have roots or values in the ag industry and what it stands for who try to come in and convince families and friends that what they do is wrong, when it’s our way of life that puts food on their table.”
Hathaway says that is simply not true.
“We’re not doing what people have accused us of trying to do. That’s something the industry reps say, that we’re trying to put them out of business. I’m from here [South Florida]. I’ve done a lot of work relative to the environment in Florida. So I do understand the history and the difficulty that the past brings to the present. But if there’s away to do this better so that we don’t have to burn, so people aren’t affected by smoke, that’s something that we want to help build a path towards,” said Hathaway.