October marks the beginning of the pre-harvest burn season. From October to May, sugarcane growers are allowed to burn their fields and clear it of excess plant parts left behind after harvesting the crop.
There is a significant rift between the businesses who support harvest burn season and the organizations that are opposed to the practice, seeking more environmentally-friendly methods. On one side, sugar farmers feel they are being over-scrutinized for a method that is key to its bottom line. In its view, sugarcane harvest burns do not have a negative impact on nearby residents. Environmental organizations, however, attribute the poor air quality and wasting of natural resources to these businesses.
At a meeting in Belle Glade on Thursday, the Florida Forest Service , County Health Departments, and sugar industry officials discussed the findings from last year’s burning season.
These are some of the facts they shared:
- Sugarcane fields and other lands, totaling 90,800 acres of pasture, was burned in November 2017. It was part of last season’s pre-harvest burn, according to data from Randall Miller with Miller Environmental Solutions. For comparison, that’s around 68,787 football fields;
- The Hendry and Glades County Health Department only received one complaint of ash, smoke or burning smell from the community last season;
- The Palm Beach County Health Department got seven complaints last year on March 14 and March 19. All of the complaints were investigated through lab analysis and invalidated. In the past 10 years, 38 complaints have gone through their office, according to Jaime Morales with the department.
"To some people, the nuisance is the ash," Pat Dobbins, formerly with the Hendry and Glades County Health Department, said. "I haven’t had anyone with respiratory problems. The data doesn’t show any respiratory illnesses caused by sugar cane burning."
Sugar farmers said burning the land helps them get rid of plant parts and outer leaves left on the soil more efficiently. And through the current process, officials have to approve burn days based on weather and air conditions.
"When it comes down to the burning it’s very crucial to our industry," Brad Lundey said, who is a sugar farmer in Glades County. "It’s a natural way to maintain the habitat."
The burning also clears land that could become a problem during wildfire season.
"All this poses as a very high risk for wildfires when you have that much dry material," Ruben Rifa said, an area coordinator for U.S. Sugar . "I mean there’s just no way to put it out if it catches fire it’s going to burn for who knows how far."
There’s another side to this too. Anti-burn groups, such as “Stop Sugar Field Burning Now,” are suggesting other methods like “green harvesting.” That is the use of mechanical harvesters to get rid of the outer leaves and other trash left behind on the soil. The group members say burning sugarcane causes falling ash and poor air quality in the surrounding areas.
SWFL environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, have requested the state to deny burn permits for sugarcane growers in previous years.
Patrick Ferguson is a member of the Sierra Club and a part of the "Stop Sugar Field Burning Now" campaign . Ferguson has sent the following statement in an e-mail:
"The goal of the Sierra Club, and the community members with whom we are collaborating, is to convince sugar producers to change their operations to become responsible, better neighbors to the residents in an around the EAA. A good neighbor would keep smoke, soot, and ash off of residents’ property and out of their lungs. Being a good neighbor also includes using the riches extracted from the soil to improve the local economy. Right now all of the 'trash' that is currently going up in smoke is actually a valuable natural resource that can be utilized to create jobs close to the sugar fields. Some of the products made from sugarcane trash by other sugar producers around the world are biochar fertilizer, bio-carbon biomass fuel pellets, sugarcane ethanol-based biodiesel and bio-jet fuels, commercial mulch/soil amendments, tree-free paper products, and electric energy. Investing in the infrastructure to economically utilize trash instead of wasting it can not only create more local jobs but can also provide new sources of profit revenue for sugar growers. Green harvesting is a win-win-win."