Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative’s Patrick Arnold Works to Keep Sugar Industry Sustainable, Eco-friendly
by PAUL CATALA
Motorists traveling on county and state roads in South-Central Florida have grown familiar with the dark plumes of smoke emanating from vast acres of sugarcane. But that could change as the practice of burning sugar fields to remove leaves and the tops of plants before harvest is used less and less.
Still, every year from October to May, the burning takes place in some of the more than 400,000 acres of sugarcane fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee. But through the efforts of concerned members and employees of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative (SCGC) of Florida, an ongoing effort to make sugarcane farming and harvesting more sustainable is at the forefront.
Helping to lead that sustainability effort is Patrick Arnold, SCGC agriculture technology manager.
The SCGC is an agricultural enterprise taking sugar from cane fields in South Florida to homes, restaurants, and food manufacturing facilities throughout America and internationally.
The co-op is composed of 44 small to medium-sized member farms growing sugarcane on approximately 70,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area. Members farms are located in Palm Beach, Hendry, Highlands, Martin, and Okeechobee counties.
Based in the SCGC mill and offices in Belle Glade, Arnold is in his 16th year with the co-op. One of his top priorities is staying apprised of new sugarcane production technologies to help the industry become better stewards of the land and commit to farming in a sustainable fashion.
Speaking from his home in Moore Haven – two houses down from where he was raised — Arnold says his position was just created in 2021. He says this role in sugarcane production equipment technology is helping to reduce harvester fuel consumption and lessening the environmental footprints in the fields while increasing profits.
“The biggest majority of that revolves around John Deere’s (agricultural machinery) technology on the new harvesters and tractors. They’re providing us with automated systems for cleaning sugarcane with extractor fans, yield monitors and automatic SmartClean machines,” explains Arnold, 43. “On the tractors, they will shift themselves, read the load and acquire set speeds that help with fuel consumption and reducing emissions.”
For the 2021 sugarcane harvest of about 17.1 million tons, Arnold says 27 percent of the crop was cut “green,” meaning it wasn’t burned off.
He says the SCGC is introducing a fleet of 35 to 40 harvesters, some of them contracted, and three-quarters of them set up with the latest harvesting technology. As older harvesters are phased out, he says 32 of the newer machines should be equipped with SmartClean technology. That innovation provides harvesting cameras and sensors that ultimately lead to adjusting the amount of trash going back into the field or onto the mill wagons.
“Having SmartClean reduces fuel consumption and increases profits in the fields for the growers, bringing down the footprint for us as well,” he says. “It’s a great environmental tool.”
Arnold says the SCGC was formed in the late 1950s when local, private, small-scale farmers got together to make a unified mill capable of producing sugar. He says the idea was to invest in a co-op for “fair pricing” where “everyone had a hand in what was going on at the mill to provide sugar.”
Currently, the SCGC has sugarcane on about 75,000 acres, with other agriculture growing to push its property to more than 100,000 acres, in addition to acreage provided by brother mills such as U.S. Sugar. The scope of SCGC in South Florida keeps Arnold circulating about South Florida.
Arnold began his career in the sugar industry in 1998 as a research assistant for Florida Crystals. He then spent from 2001 to 2005 as Glades Sugar Industry Supervisor for PRIDE Enterprises, Belle Glade. He joined the SCGC in 2005 as a unit supervisor-mapping technician.
Arnold says his role in helping to advance harvesting techniques while monitoring environmental impacts will remain crucial. He says the sugar industry is changing in innovation and data-driven programs – both in the field and the factory.
“It’s becoming a high-tech job where we’re looking at all sorts of data and learning from it to make better decisions whether environmental things or farming or processing,” he says. “Because we’re made of member-growers, all of us are in the same boat. We want to make a living ourselves, but we also want to have this legacy for our kids to be able to farm land and be productive in the farming industry in the future.”