Starting in October of last year and ending in April, sugar farmers in South Florida conducted the annual controlled burns of their fields in order to harvest sugarcane for processing.
The environmental group Sierra Club is attempting to force farmers to abandon the process and switch to a “green harvest,” a more labor- and time-intensive process.
U.S. Sugar and other area farmers counter that green harvesting slows down the process and leaves excess plant matter on the fields, which has a negative effect on crop growth and can encourage bug infestation.
In an attempt to stop the burning, the Sierra Club filed a petition in 2015 with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to include cane burning under DEP’s purview when issuing air emissions permits. DEP dismissed Sierra Club’s petition, noting that the prescribed burns used for cane burning are already subject to oversight by the Florida Forest Service.
U.S. Sugar farm manager Mack Hale explained that conditions such as wind direction play a crucial role in whether they’re able to obtain permits to burn.
“If the wind is directed to a residential area or a highway, we don’t burn,” said Mr. Hale. “Anytime someone sees a burn happening, it’s because we were issued a permit by the Florida Forest Service.”
The Sierra Club claims that large amounts of hazardous air pollutants are released by cane burning each season and can negatively impact people’s health, quality of life and the environment. But farmers say studies have shown that Glades, Hendry and Palm Beach counties actually have the best air quality in the state and that the controlled burns usually last only 15 minutes, with the smoke quickly rising up and away from highways and local towns.
The County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program conducted by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute backs up the farmers’ claims. Glades, Hendry and Palm Beach county’s air pollution ranks lower than the Florida average and even lower then the average of the top counties in the United States.
Sierra Club representative Patrick Ferguson said more monitoring is needed.
“The multitude of toxic pollutants released from sugarcane burning is not currently being measured by the state or federal government,” Mr. Ferguson said. “There is currently only one official state-run air quality monitoring device and it measures for only one pollutant, PM2.5.”
PM2.5 refers to atmospheric particulate matter that has a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, which is about 3 percent of the diameter of a human hair.
U.S. Sugar Senior Director of Public Affairs Judy Sanchez said there’s an ulterior motive behind the club’s attempt to stop the cane burning, which is to shut down agriculture south of Lake Okeechobee.
“For the last 20 years there’s been an effort by a pseudo-environmental group to drive agriculture out of South Florida,” she said. “They weren’t concerned about people’s health in the Glades and pre-harvest burning until 2015. And the reason they started being concerned in 2015 is because they started receiving funding. So we have reason to doubt the sincerity of their efforts.”
U.S. Sugar points to the Sierra Club’s involvement in the lawsuits and advocacy against the sugar industry in Hawaii as an example of how the group wants to put farmers out of business. In 2016, Hawaii’s final sugar mill shut down.
Rev. Dr. Gary L. McNealy, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, said some members of his congregation have anxiety about the sugar mill in Clewiston shutting down.
“You’re talking about three or four generations of families that have worked in that business,” said Rev. McNealy. “A lot of the older guys come to me and say they can’t be retrained for any other kind of industry if U.S. Sugar is shut down. That’s how they sustain their families, send their kids to college. I have older guys in my congregation look me in the face and just say that we need to fight back against this.”
Julia du Plooy, president of the Lake Okeechobee Business Alliance (LOBA), said the group that’s currently funding the Sierra Club is the same group that was pushing the Florida Legislature to buy farmland south of Lake O in 2015 and turn the land into a water storage reservoir. On LOBA’s website they’ve collected a series of posts made by followers of Bullsugar.org on their Facebook page. The posts appear to show a callous attitude toward members of the Glades communities. One post suggested they “buy out the folks south of the dam and blow it up.” Bullsugar’s stated goal is to stop discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the coast.
“The goal of the Sierra Club,” said Mr. Ferguson, “and the community members with whom we are collaborating, is to convince sugar producers to change their operations to become responsible, better neighbors.”