Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Contrary to the popular cliche, agriculture is the oldest profession of humankind. It’s as old as Genesis and continues to flourish in the 21st century. That’s a blessing because most of us are addicted to eating.

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!

Friday, December 23, 2011


It’s only taken about seventy years but these last two Christmases have finally taught me something important! I’ve often wondered why Santa Claus makes that difficult and dangerous journey around the world on Christmas Eve night. He’s long past retirement age and Mrs. Claus has probably been nagging him for years to give up his Christmas travels so they could go south for the holidays.

The airways are getting more congested every year. Reindeer power is no match for supersonic jets and space ships. The elves are gradually dying off. Those that remain can’t work as fast as they used to. Toy prices have increased dramatically. The world’s population is growing at an alarming rate.

Nevertheless, Santa continues to make his whirlwind "giving trip" year after year without fail. Now I know why! It’s because "it IS more blessed to give than to receive"! It wasn’t Santa who said that but he obviously knows it’s true. Now I – and several other people – also know it, too!

Last Christmas (2010) our RV park of Winter Texans adopted a needy family in our neighborhood to assist with food and holiday gifts. Several individuals also made Christmas merrier for two other families. The outpouring donation of gifts and donated food was beyond all expectations. So, this year (2011) our seasonal community offered holiday happiness for five needy families in the surrounding community.

We contacted the public school just a few miles from our park. The staff there indicated that 96% of their students are "economically disadvantaged." The school receives governmental assistance to provide breakfast, lunch and "a brown bag snack" each school day for those students. When school is dismissed for holidays or vacations, many of those families do not have the means to feed their own children three meals a day.

The school social worker lives in the community and knows the households of her students well. She gave us the names of five families of their students who were in need of life’s basic necessities. There were 49 persons living in those five households! "How in the world would we ever be able to provide gifts and food for so many?" we wondered. Then we watched a miracle take place.

Gifts and food began to pour in from the 100 or so residents of our park. Cash donations had not been asked for but $535 of donated cash provided gifts for every one of those 49 persons!

A $500 donation designated for food filled three grocery carts to overflowing at the local market. The store manager, impressed by our "spirit of Christmas giving" donated a gift card for each of the families!

A large "gift wrapping party" of volunteers prepared boxes and bags for delivery. Other volunteers carefully divided up the donated food, assigning an appropriate amount to each household.

Like the biblical "five loaves and two fishes," our Christmas gifts had multiplied!

Delivery day arrived and a large cargo trailer was loaned to transport all the gifts.

It was filled from side to side and front to back with boxes, bags and bins carefully labeled with each recipient family’s name. Then, like Santa’s subordinates on a trial run, we headed out, led by the school social worker.

Off the main highways, we traveled county roads and gravel byways from one humble home to another. Barking dogs, twinkling holiday decorations and smiling family members welcomed us at each stop. The poverty of the homes was obvious in the tiny, crowded rooms, leaky roofs, drafty walls, broken or makeshift steps, barefoot and lightly clad children. But, just as obvious, was the love and hospitality that dwelt in each home. Well mannered children were eager to help us carry the packages. There were hearty handshakes from the men of each home and an occasional hug from the women and girls.

For one of the families, our visit was a repeat of last year’s Christmas helping. But they were eager to show us their own surprise: the little house they are building for themselves! It is tiny and not yet finished but they now have sleeping space under a roof that doesn’t leak. When the house is completed, it will provide for them a kitchen and indoor plumbing!

"Gracias; muchas gracias," we heard over and over again from the adults in each home. The school age children expressed their delight and thanks in English.

Yes, those of us who delivered those gifts now know why Santa continues his gift-giving travels each Christmas season. It’s because "It [REALLY] is more blessed to give than to receive." That’s partly because, in giving, one also receives: "Gracias! Gracias! Muchas gracias!"

23 Dec 2011 - mshr

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Sshhh! Don’t tell anybody, but I’ve discovered a new secret society. At least I had never heard of it before! It’s mostly active just at this season of the year. Because of that, it’s vitally important that its activities remain secret. Much hue and cry of complaint would be raised by the public – and by holiday merchants - if that secret society's subversive activities became known.

I’ll tell you a little about this group but keep it to yourself. We don’t want to let their deepest, darkest secrets see the light of day or the awareness of the shopping hordes. You see, the clandestine little club is called the "Secret Scrooge Society" and they are (Whisper!) anti-Christmas, or at least anti-Christmas buying! 

They are well organized.   The motto of the group is:

"Bah and Humbug to Christmas stuff.
Of merchandising, we’ve had enough!"

They have a secret handshake sign, to be used only by members. It is a tightly clenched fist shaken in front of the face.

Their public activities are clandestine. Are they behind the blizzards and ice storms that disrupt holiday shopping? Are they the cause of traffic jams near shopping malls? Are they the reason that the last item in the size you wanted has already been sold? Is it the Secret Scrooge Society that is responsible for record-setting fuel prices? Are they the reason why the TV set you bought for Uncle Ebenezer didn’t work when you got it home? I don’t know, and certainly no member of the society would own up to their mischief.

Their meeting times and places are secret, too, of course, and I am not privy to that information. I have been told, however, that all their gatherings begin with the singing of their theme song. Set to a familiar Christmas tune, it gives them a chance to vent some of their anti-materialistic feelings about the holidays, as you can see:


(TUNE: The Twelve Days of Christmas)

On the first day of Christmas, my sweetheart gave to me,
A gift card from the WalMart in the mall.

On the second day of Christmas, my parents gave to me,
Two candlesticks, .....

On the third day of Christmas, the salesman promised me,
Three flat screen TVs,....

On the fourth day of Christmas, my in-laws gave to me,
Four Christmas trees, .....

On the fifth day of Christmas, my children gave to me,
Five pairs of earrings, ....

On the sixth day of Christmas, our neighbors gave to us,
Six plates of cookies, ....

On the seventh day of Christmas, my best friend gave to me,
Seven heavy sweaters, ....

On the eighth day of Christmas, my grandkids gave to me,
Eight fuzzy muppets, ....

On the ninth day of Christmas, some jokester sent to me,
Nine brief bikinis, ....

On the tenth day of Christmas, Secret Santa gave to me,

Ten lottery tickets, ....

On the eleventh day of Christmas, the scales gave to me,
Eleven extra fat pounds, ....

On the twelfth day of Christmas, I ordered for myself,
A twelve cubic foot dumpster, ...."
I’d like to know: how much are the membership dues? Perhaps by cutting back on holiday buying, I could afford to join!

6 Dec 2011- mshr