We grew up in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where corn, wheat, oats, soybeans, cattle and pigs were the primary products of the farms. Then we became Winter Texans. In the Rio Grande Valley for six months, we found ourselves in the midst of an agricultural mystery.
What was causing these frequent plumes of smoke and air-borne ash? Where were all these identical trucks – yellow cabs and fence-like trailers – coming from or going to? And the many acres of bright green plants with fronds instead of leaves? What was hiding behind the clouds of steam and smoke belching from a small factory along a busy highway a few miles east of our park?
We discovered that we were living in sugar cane country! Most of the sugar cane grown in the U.S. comes from Louisiana and Alabama. But there are three counties in deep southeast Texas where the soil and weather are suitable for growing cane. Sugar cane is not one of the major sources of income for farmers in this area. However, for half of the year, harvesting, processing, and shipping out the raw product is a major operation in our area. That’s because the only sugar mill in Texas is just about 15 miles east of our RV park.
We find the “sugar cane cycle” to be fascinating; very different from what we knew of farming in the mid-West. We thought it might be of interest to you corn farmers of Ohio and Indiana, too.
Sugar cane plants can regenerate themselves from the same root for several years. The same planting can be harvested for as many as five or more years.
The plants, however, are hard on the soil. So most growers plow them under after about five years. The field is then planted in some type of ground cover which will replenish the nutrients of the soil.
The following year new sugar cane starts are planted in the field and the cycle begins again.
The crop matures in about a year. Three varieties of cane plants -- early, mid and late season types -- extend the harvest season over six months, from September through March. In Hidalgo County where we live the harvest season is spectacular.
The season is ushered in by the appearance of tell-tale plumes of smoke on near-by horizons.
Then, as we travel the roads of the county, we see more and more warning signs like this. The signs remind us why cane fields are always planted with broad, "firebreaks" on all four sides of the crop.
Several days after the warning signs have been posted the harvest begins in that field. The first step of the harvest is an eye-popping, ear-splitting extravaganza! This large tractor arrives at the field. It has a loudspeaker mounted on top and tows a flame-thrower behind. It circles the field several times loudly announcing -- in both Spanish and English -- that the field will soon be burned and that anyone who might be in the field should leave it immediately.
A tractor with a tank full of water in tow is stationed along the nearby roadside in case the fire gets out of control. Traffic control personnel and vehicles are put in place. Then the burning begins.
(This step of burning off the excess foliage takes place only in rural areas far from cities or heavily populated areas. It is also strictly controlled by regulations regarding technique, location, weather, wind speeds, safety procedures, etc.)
The flames, ignited by the flame-thrower drawn by the tractor, move quickly into the field. Each plant burns for about twenty seconds, just long enough to burn off the excess and unnecessary foliage.
The tractor and flame-thrower move steadily along the open firebreaks on all four sides of the field, igniting it from all directions.
Clouds of smoke rise from the field and ash (known locally as "black snow") fills the air for miles downwind of the burn. The ash clings to everything it touches, dirties up sidewalks and patio floors and transforms swimming pools into filthy ponds!
The fire is intense, but brief. It takes only 20 minutes to burn a 40 acre field. The tractor and flame-thrower circle the field only once, igniting the crop. The flames do their work quickly and then die out. Only the charred stems of the cane plants and curls of smoke linger as a reminder of the day's dramatic preparation for the harvest.
Within a day or two, the harvesting machine arrives in the field. In many ways, the cane harvester resembles a corn picker. The ground-level "knives" at the front cut the cane stalks at the ground. The two auger-like tubes gather up the stalks, shred them, and raise them up into the storage bin.
Timing is important for if a hard freeze occurs (a rare event in deep south Texas) the cane crop will be ruined in three days. So the harvester wastes no time in carrying out the next step of the cane harvest.
The harvester periodically unloads its burden of harvested stalks into field wagons.
The field wagons are towed out to the highway where their contents are emptied into semi- trailer trucks for transport to the sugar refinery. A line of other transport semis waits on the highway for their turn to fill.
The wonders of hydraulic power make the job quick and efficient but, no doubt, requires highly skilled operators.
Loaded to capacity, the sugar cane transport truck heads off toward the refinery.
So, for the six months of harvest season, this is a common sight -- and traffic reality -- on the highways around our winter home.
The destination of all the trucks transporting harvested cane is the W.R. Cowley Sugar House operated by the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, Inc. a cooperative of the 119 local cane farmers. The refinery is located near the small town of Santa Rosa.
A November 15, 2011 news release reported, "SANTA ROSA, Texas -- The old mill is cranking and squeezing out sweetness for the 32nd sugar cane season in the Rio Grande Valley...
"More than 270,000 tons of sugar cane has been produced so far at the W.R. Cowley Sugar House off Highway 107 in Santa Rosa since the Oct. 1 opening...
"In 2003, the counties of Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy -- the only sugar producing area in Texas -- have harvested almost 44,000 acres that produced more than 1 million tons of sugar...."
The sugar, in raw form, is transported to the Port of Brownsville and shipped from there to a processing plant in Louisiana where it is further refined for table use. Molasses is a by-product of the Cowley Sugar House refining of the sugar cane and it is sold to the animal feed industry.
In 2010, the Cowley Sugar House received national recognition for its energy-saving measures. All the electricity needed to run the mill operations is produced by burning the waste products from the harvested cane.
And that's the sweet ending of the sugary tale of the local cane industry!