Sugar Cane

Dear Readers,

I have changed the look of my blog site, Living in Eternity.  The process was somewhat cumbersome.  In doing so it may have generated many unnecessary email notifications, I apologize for that.  This theme change has me appreciating the people who help keep the internet spinning.  My website budget is $4.00/mth, consequently I have a very small IT team, (me, myself and I).  The good folks at WordPress (blog site provider) helped me greatly.

Let’s talk sugar cane.  Here in the Rio Grande Valley between the months of August and February you often see big billowing smoke plumes.  “What’s that, something is on fire!!”  “Not to worry, it’s just another a sugar cane field being burned.”  “But why, and how do they do it?  Doesn’t the EPA have something to say about this? This just does not seem right.”

These questions prompted us to attended a sugar cane processing presentation.  It was very interesting.  The Co-Op is made up of a processing mill, one hundred twenty-five farmers, a bunch of truckers, and seasonal workers that return each year.  Thirteen million dollars in payroll alone is put back into the local community, and that does not include what the farmers earn.  They are paid depending on quality and quantity, just like every other farmer taking on risk.  Love the farmers.  The farmers work closely with the mill’s and provide a constant flow of raw product.  The mill never shuts down, once it starts, it runs nonstop for the season.  When the harvest is done, the entire mill will get torn down and rebuilt during the off season.  Twenty-four hours a day you can see semi-trucks dumping their loads.

Stock photo

Sugar cane is in the grass family.  Once a field is harvested, it will grow back up to five times without replanting.   It takes 365 days to grow one crop.  All you need to grow cane is heat, and water.  South Texas and the Rio Grande River, meet that criteria.  The cost to purchase one-foot acre of water is about twenty dollars.  That’s measured by calculating one acre of land and flooding it with one foot of water.  Far less expensive than I imagined.

The cane can be processed without burning.  However, that adds about forty percent to the cost of production.  Burning is preferred.  When a crop is just right it has to be processed whether it can be burned or not.  The sugar content will begin to diminish, and now the push is on to get it into the mill.

The mill registers with the EPA for a burn permit, and three criteria need to be met before a controlled burn can only take place.  The wind must be between 6-23 MPH, the air temperature at 3,000 feet must be at least ten degrees cooler than the ground temperature, and the humidity has to be within a certain range.  The mill controls the burn, not the farmer.

Weeks before harvest, signs in English and Spanish are posted on all four sides of the field.  Hours before the burn, trucks with loud speakers drive around the field announcing the field will be burned.  My first thought was, if someone was in the middle of the field how would they hear the message?  Remember sugar cane is in the grass family. It grows twelve feet tall, thick, and very willy-nilly.  Walking through a sugar cane field is extremely difficult.  A person can disappear by stepping four feet into a cane field.

When the conditions are right, A rather large flame thrower attached to a tractor ignites the leeward side of the sugar cane field.  Thus, creating a fire break, then the remaining three sides are set on fire.  Working its way around all four sides of the field.  The low humidity provides dry fuel, the wind feeds the fire, and the cool upper air creates an updraft.  In ideal conditions the fire is intense, emulsifying the ash.  A forty-acre field will burn completely in fourteen minutes.  Unfortunately, the ash does not always burn completely, and falls onto the good citizens making up the Rio Grande Valley.  Remembering the thirteen million community dollars, it’s like raining money.  Besides it’s just carbon, and it does fertilize the ground.  O.K. so that is the positive spin, but did you know that washing off ash is better than brushing or sweeping?

Click here for detailed sugar cane processing



How sugar cane is harvested presentation; at the Llano Grande event center.



A field burning just outside Llano Grande RV Park

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