There’s no better place to see Florida’s complicated sugar story playing out than on the ground in the communities where residents engage in the day-to-day operations of the industry and are considering its future. An important—and often overshadowed—piece of that puzzle is the harvesting techniques that some cane families say are responsible for a public health crisis.
In the late 1800s, agricultural prospectors were salivating over South Florida’s productive potential. They had their sights on Lake Okeechobee and its surrounding regions, thanks to the nutrient-rich muck that promised easy growing and healthy crop yields.
USDA chief chemist Harvey Wiley sang its praises.
“There is practically no other body of land in the world which presents such remarkable possibilities of development as the muck lands bordering the southern shores of Lake Okeechobee,” Wiley said in his 1891 report to the Secretary of Agriculture.
Land surveying and drainage activities in the Everglades and near Lake Okeechobee began in 1905 to open up the lake’s muck to farming. Among those producers attracted were sugar growers, who modeled their efforts after successful plantations in Louisiana. By then, Southerners and Florida Crackers had a taste for cane: small farms and kitchen gardens had long grown sugarcane to make cane syrup, molasses and rum. Large-scale cane production in the 1900s helped launch Florida’s sugar industry into the economic giant it is today.
Florida is the country’s largest provider of cane sugar. The industry has a nearly $3 billion impact on the state’s economy. Sugar is Florida’s most valuable crop, worth more than the state’s corn, soybean, tobacco and peanut crops combined, according to UF/IFAS. The federal government supports the industry with import barriers on sugar, which increase domestic sugar prices and cost consumers about $2 billion annually, according to the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank.
Yet the industry’s presence in the state has become the source of much tension. Arguments about sugar’s government subsidies, its historically exploitative labor practices, the industry’s role in Lake Okeechobee’s crippling blue-green algae blooms, and its hindrance to Everglades restoration efforts are center stage in public discussion. Solutions to these complex issues have so far eluded lawmakers.
But culturally, sugar is an enduring South Florida touchstone. The majority of Florida’s sugarcane is grown in Palm Beach, Hendry, Glades and Martin Counties, and generational communities have grown up around it.
There’s no better place to see Florida’s complicated sugar story playing out than on the ground in these communities, where residents engaged in the day-to-day operations of the industry are considering its future. An important—and often overshadowed—piece of that puzzle is the harvesting techniques that some cane families say are responsible for a public health crisis.
This three-part series dives into that conversation, which revolves around burning cane fields, concerned communities and a rich heritage on both sides. Because to understand where Florida sugar is headed, we must meet the people who value Florida sugar most.
Growing up in the Glades
As a child, Kina Phillips loved cane season. South Bay, a community just south of Lake Okeechobee where her family has lived for six generations, was always vibrant this time of year.
During cane season, much of her family and friends worked harvesting cane. Seasonal workers would pour in from Jamaica and other areas to work the fields. Phillips’ brothers would catch rabbits and bring back stalks of cane to eat.
“We would peel it and eat salt, pepper, vinegar and cane,” she said. “It was fun to us, but we really wasn’t understanding the impact of what was happening.”
Sugar cane is a tall grass that can grow up to 12 feet high. As the stalk shoots up, dead leaves slough off and new green leaves emerge at the top. Many farmers conduct pre-harvest burns of cane fields to dispose of the dead leaves that accumulate around the stalk of the plant.
It wasn’t until Phillips became an adult that she began to see a connection between the pre-harvest burns of cane season and the compromised health of her friends, community and family.
She first noticed the correlation while working at a local medical center.
“We had a lot of people with a very great increase in respiratory problems during the time of sugar cane burning,” she said.
Once she started to think back, she realized there had been many signs of illness along the way. Respiratory issues, and asthma especially, were common among her friends growing up. She remembers shouting to her childhood friends not to forget their inhalers when heading to play outside.
She also saw her grandson affected. He was born in December during cane season, and had respiratory issues, especially when he was outside.
“We had to put him on the machines and stuff because it was hard for him to breathe,” she said.
About three years ago, Phillips was introduced to the Sierra Club, an environmentalist group that has a campaign to “Stop Sugar Field Burning Now” in the Glades area. She shared her story with the group and became a spokesperson for her community, advocating for green harvesting techniques rather than the pre-harvest burns that she believes have impacted her community’s health.
“We’ve been negatively impacted for so many years,” Phillips said, “[The sugar industry] brings a lot false accusations like, ‘oh, we’re trying to close down the sugar mill,’ and ‘we’re trying to take jobs away from the people in the community.’ Well we are doing this because we love the community, and it has absolutely nothing to do with us closing the sugarmill down.”
“Life’s got to be more valuable than profit.”
Phillips said many have misunderstood her mission. Her goal is to have cane farmers in the Glades area consider green harvesting, a method that removes dead leaves from sugar cane without fire, either mechanically or by hand. She does not want to push sugar farmers or the sugar industry out of business, and she emphasized that ending cane farming would affect her personally.
“My husband works for the sugar company and so with him working for the sugar company, that’s our livelihood. That’s how he takes care of us,” she said.
Phillips insists that adopting green harvesting could bring more jobs to the community while protecting the health of the people who call the Glades area home.
“We’re not just telling you to stop burning. We’re telling you that there’s another option,” she said. “Life’s got to be more valuable than profit.”
Generations of Growing Cane
When Amy Perry was a child she would ride the farm’s tractor to lull her to sleep before going down for her afternoon nap.
“Ever since I was little I have always loved, loved our industry and loved farming,” she said.
Perry is a fifth generation sugarcane farmer living in Moore Haven, a town southwest of Lake Okeechobee. Her family farm started at about 1,000 acres, and has grown over the years to about 15,000 acres. Though sugar cane makes up the majority of their crop, they also “proudly grow watermelons.”
Perry’s excitement for farming is just as strong today as it ever was. To spread the word about sugar cane farming and specifically the pre-harvest burns used in the process, she has taken on the role of coordinator for SAFE Communities, which stands for Sustainable Agricultural Fire Education.
“When I was little, I used to think it was the coolest thing, and my eyes would just light up and get so excited like a little kid in a candy store,” she said of cane farming. “And I can honestly say I still do that today. I get so excited to watch the harvest, the burn. I get so excited to tell people about it and show what we do.”
Perry’s family has always used pre-harvest burns in their farming of sugarcane, and in her view, it’s a cleaner and safer process.
“The stalk is made up of 70 percent water, so it extinguishes the fires as soon as it hits the stalk,” Perry said. “That’s what puts it out. So if you’re around a fire, you hear the sizzling and the popping, and that’s what it is. The water just putting the fire out.”
The smell of burnt sugar, almost like molasses, accompanies this sizzling, popping sound. It’s an experience that Perry knows well and one that she cherishes.
“It cleans up our field and makes it easier for the harvesters to harvest,” she said. “It also creates less hauling because without the dry leaf matter, you have extra space to put the stalks in the train cars or the truck cars.”
“There’s people that have harvested sugar cane for 100 years and none of us have health problems from it.”
For Perry, it’s also a safety issue. One of her biggest concerns is an accidental fire sparking when one or more of the farm’s 30 employees are in the field.
“If a rock hits one of those machines with the metal, it’s gonna make a spark. If it hits that dry leaf matter just right, it is going to catch that field on fire,” she said. “You’re going to endanger all the people that are in that field, which are people driving harvesters, people driving tractors to collect the cane and people standing around the field to make sure things are going properly, and then you’re going to endanger the truck drivers who are moving the cane.”
Perry can list other reasons why her family has always done it this way, and for her, there are no disadvantages to burns.
“I cannot think of a single thing that is a drawback for it,” she said.
She is intimately aware of the criticism pre-harvest burns have received in recent years; SAFE Communities emerged in direct response to what she considers misinformation being spread about the burns.
“I’m actually currently having a really hard time with this because we’re being attacked,” Perry said. “The accusations that are being made are false, and we are trying very hard to put out our side of the story.”
Perry points specifically to Robert Wood Johnson air quality data as proof that there are not significant health impacts for the pre-harvest burns.
The report indicates, on average, the air quality of the Glades region ranks among the highest in the state. However, the report stipulates the findings do not take into account “short-term fluctuations in air quality.” This could include pre-harvest burns, as this technique typically takes about 15 to 20 minutes.
“Even within counties with low average fine particulate matter concentrations, locations can experience days of dangerously elevated levels,” the air quality report said.
Still, Perry has not witnessed negative health impacts in her farming community.
“We’ve been doing [pre-harvest burns] since we’ve been around with sugar cane, and that’s just us. There’s people that have harvested sugar cane for 100 years and none of us have health problems from it,” Perry said.
Photos provided by Kina Phillips, Amy Perry and the State Archives of Florida