Sugarcane a Sweet Infusion for Florida Economy
by TERESA SCHIFFER
Sponsored by Farm Credit of Central Florida
Sugar may have its critics in the dietary world, but when it comes to dollars and cents, sugarcane contributes plenty to the health of the Florida economy. The sugarcane industry supports more than 19,000 jobs and pumps $4.7 billion into the state’s economy each year.
About three-quarters of the world’s sugar is produced using sugarcane, and more than half of the sugarcane commercially grown in the U.S. is cultivated in Florida.
Sugarcane is the source of one of the essential raw materials used to manufacture sugar in the U.S. It is currently grown only in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, with Florida being the top producer. Most of Florida’s sugarcane is grown in the southern part of the state, primarily around Lake Okeechobee.
History of Sugarcane in Florida
Like the citrus genus, sugarcane originally hails from Asia where the giant, perennial grass has been grown in gardens for more than 4,000 years. Christopher Columbus is said to have brought the plant to the New World during his travels in the 16th century. Over the next couple of centuries, plantations were established throughout the Caribbean, and by the middle of the nineteenth century Cuba was the world leader in sugarcane production.
When the U.S. ceased importing sugar from Cuba in the late 1950s, Florida took over as the country’s primary source of sugarcane. In 1960, a group of family farmers joined together to establish the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida in Belle Glade and planted sugarcane on 22,000 acres in South Florida. That area has increased to over 400,000 acres since then.
Sugarcane is a hybrid of four species in the Saccharum genus. It thrives in warm climates and fertile soil, making the region surrounding Lake Okeechobee ideal due to the intersection of sufficient water, the lake’s warming effect, and rich, organic soil in that area. About 75 percent of the sugarcane produced in Florida is grown around the southern portion of Lake Okeechobee in Palm Beach County, with the remainder coming from Hendry, Glades, and Martin Counties.
In Florida, sugarcane is planted from late August through January. Due to sugarcane being a hybrid of several different species, its seeds will differ genetically from the parent plants. This requires the use of vegetative propagation using sections of stalks from a mother plant in order to ensure genetic constancy in the fields.
A typical sugarcane field is replanted every two to four years. Generally, three annual crops can be harvested from one field before replanting is required, assuming there is no significant damage sustained from disease, pests, or adverse weather events.
The harvesting season for sugarcane proceeds from late October until mid-April, with the greatest yields usually occurring in December. Historically, sugarcane fields were burned prior to harvesting in order to clear away dead leaves and other organic debris that could otherwise negatively impact the efficiency of the harvesting process.
Once the sugarcane stalks are harvested, they are transported to mills for processing. This consists mainly of squeezing as much liquid as possible from the stalks using heavy rollers, hot water, and lime (calcium hydroxide). Sugarcane stalks are roughly 85 percent liquid, with just 11 percent of that liquid being actual sugar. The fibrous material left after the squeezing is called “bagasse” and is often burned as fuel for the mills or for electricity.
The liquid extracted from the stalks is then concentrated by evaporating off water to separate the crystalized sucrose from the thick, dark liquid known as blackstrap molasses. At this point, the sucrose is considered raw sugar and can be sent to a refinery for further processing to become the various forms of sugar available on the market, from liquid sugar for commercial use to the familiar granulated sugar on supermarket shelves.