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.