Today’s sugarcane farming not your grandfather’s sugarcane farm

This year marks nearly 30 years of consecutive harvest at Perry Farms, one of U.S. Sugar’s 34 independent sugarcane farms in South Florida’s Glades farming region. While our farm has been growing and harvesting sugarcane for U.S. Sugar for generations, much has changed since my grandfather first planted sugarcane here in the late 1980s. Significant advancements have been made in precision agriculture and farming information technology, ensuring that farmers not only specialize in growing crops, but also in technology, weather science and biochemistry.

Like the smartphones we all use every day to stay connected to our friends and family, today’s sugarcane harvesters, tractors and other “smart” equipment also stay connected under U.S. Sugar’s Wi-Fi network, which is the largest private Wi-Fi network in the world. The network spans more than 200,000 acres of sugarcane farms, continuously sending data that allow farmers to plant, grow and harvest more efficiently. Technology using GPS guidance to precisely plant, till and harvest saves time, money and greatly reduces fuel consumption in our fields.

Prior to harvest, sugarcane farmers review up-to-the minute weather data showing current weather patterns, wind speed and atmospheric conditions before fields are selected for a pre-harvest burn. This process is closely regulated through the Florida Forest Service to protect workers, equipment and surrounding communities. South Florida’s soil, climate and crop conditions are not conducive to leaving large amounts of leaf material on the fields, either to run the risk of an uncontrolled wildfires prior to harvest or left to rot and provide a fertile breeding ground for odors, pest and disease if left on the field. The current process has served our communities well for decades, with public health data showing there are very few complaints annually and no increases or association between health issues and the sugarcane harvest season.

Amy Perry works on her family farm, Perry Farms, in Moore Haven.

As to air quality, our sugarcane growing region in Hendry and Glades counties enjoy some of the best air quality in Florida, ranking annually among the top of Florida’s 67 counties for air quality — with fewer sources of air pollutants than our urbanized neighbors.

Once harvested, our sugarcane is brought to the mill in Clewiston by rail on one of the most efficient private transportation systems in agriculture today. Each rail car bringing cane to the mill includes radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology with the specific farm, field, variety and grower information to ensure everyone involved has all the data needed to track the cane through the milling process. That data is used to gauge the efficiency of harvest, sugar yield and other important metrics.

Florida’s sugarcane processors utilize the post-processing sugarcane stalk to produce clean green energy to fuel the entire sugar milling and refining process. Excess cane fiber is also used to fuel South Florida homes and create consumer food service products.

While sugarcane farming is rooted in history in Florida, it’s exciting that it also continues to be transformed by technology. As a recent college graduate, I appreciate the opportunity to learn from a partner on the cutting edge of precision agriculture and technology such as U.S. Sugar. The next time you drive through South Florida’s Glades farming communities, remember that you are driving through one of the most technologically advanced farming regions in the world!

Amy Perry works on her family farm, Perry Farms, in Moore Haven. She is a recent graduate of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Ga.

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