Agriculture case study: Safe, controlled sugarcane burning

Teaching Students Everywhere

Posted 1/15/24

I am proud to have grown up in a farming family, and now as an agriculture teacher in Belle Glade ...

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Agriculture case study: Safe, controlled sugarcane burning

Teaching Students Everywhere


I am proud to have grown up in a farming family, and now as an agriculture teacher in Belle Glade, I have the opportunity to share facts and information about local farming practices with my students. Like many of you, I have read some of the recent stories about pre-harvest sugarcane burning, and asked myself if the people writing these stories have ever even stepped foot on a farm?  Have they spent any real time in our local communities? As a teacher, I am using these stories as an opportunity to educate others about the benefits of prescribed burning and how integral the process of pre-harvest burning is to the sugarcane crop and its harvest. Safety is an important aspect here.

The process of burning sugarcane is a tried and true method used safely for many decades all over the world. In fact, for those who live here in the Glades, when is the last time you’ve seen an out-of-control sugarcane burn impacting your home or community? You haven’t because the farmers responsible for these burns are highly trained and use the latest technology, science and weather data to make decisions on when and where to burn, with each having to obtain a daily permit from the state before setting fire to a field.  Managing a safe, controlled burn also protects workers who drive the tractors and harvesters from out of controlled wildfires. If farmers were not able to manage their fields through controlled burns, it’s entirely possible that our region could experience more wildfires. Heaven forbid, our area ever experience anything the out of control wildfires like we’ve seen out West, in Canada or in Hawaii!  I am incredibly thankful that local farmers remain good stewards of their land, which in turn helps protect our communities.  In fact, the entire state of Florida benefits from an incredible prescribed burn program to reduce the potential for wildfires across our natural and private lands — and pre-harvest sugarcane burning is a part of that same program.

There has been the suggestion that we can just use the leftover leaf material on a sugarcane field for some other commercial purpose. I have found that currently, there are no valid commercial uses for the amount of leaf material that would be left on Florida sugarcane fields absent pre-harvest burns.  The residual biomass from sugarcane (after sugar is extracted) is known as bagasse. In Belle Glade at the Sugar Cane Grower’s Cooperative, you will see it piled high next to the factor’s power facility. That’s because it is used as a renewable fuel source to power the whole process. It’s also used to make compostable plates and clamshell boxes for food – making it highly sustainable.  But there is already a surplus at every sugar mill, even after being used to power the milling process (and in some cases to provide surplus electricity to power South Florida homes). Why do sugarcane farmers burn their fields prior to harvest? The simple answer is that if not for burning, the massive amount of leaves left on the field would create significant growing issues for next year’s crop. Sugarcane is a giant grass, so if you’ve ever let the grass in your yard grow for a long time and then mow it, you can see exactly how all that extra dead grass would prevent the grass from growing back healthy.  That’s a huge problem for sugarcane as well because it is a perennial—which means it is a plant that comes back again year after year (as opposed to an annual plant that is harvested only once).  One planting of cane yields 3 to 4 annual harvests.

For sugarcane, that leftover biomass also increases the chances of inviting pests, disease, rot and additional moisture, which increases the risk of freeze. Researchers from the University of Florida-IFAS and other agricultural centers have suggested pre-harvest burning is the most preferred method in farming regions with our climate and damp soil types.

I’ve lived in the Glades my entire life and benefitted from some of the best air quality in the entire state of Florida. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, that’s mainly because we have less vehicle traffic compared to other parts of Florida. As to sugarcane burning, those fires last only 15 to 20 minutes and generally don’t impact our communities because the permits require winds to be blowing away from where people live. With so many people getting their information from Facebook, X, Instagram and Tik Tok, it’s important to share the facts when we can. There has been a lot of bad information out there, so as an Ag teacher, I’d like to help educate as many as possible. One great organization sharing information on this issue is Sustainable Agriculture Fire Education (S.A.F.E Communities). For more information, please visit Pope is a fourth generation farmer and Agriculture Education teacher at Glades Day School in Belle Glade. She resides in Pahokee, Florida