Sugarcane harvest in west Palm Beach County off to a wet start

The harvester sounds like a jet engine. The forest green machine chops sugar cane, as it plows down the row of a 40-acre field off State Road 715 and US Highway 441, near Belle Glade. 

 

The sound and the sweet smell hanging in the air can only indicate one thing: it's sugarcane harvest time. 

 

United States Sugar Corporation began harvesting Monday. It threw Juan Cervera, the company's harvest operations manager, into a flurry of activity. 

 

"It means that I have to somehow get 34 to 35,000 tons of sugar cane to the mill," said Cervera. 

 

U.S. Sugar is the largest sugarcane company in the United States. It has fields in west Palm Beach County as well as Hendry and Glades Counties. 

 

"I just love it. It's what I've done all my life," Cervera said, as he looked out over the field with pride. 

 

Cervera has worked with U.S. Sugar for 14 years. He's one of four generations of sugar growers, with roots tracing back to Cuba. 

 

"Well, I've been in sugar cane since I was four," Cervera said, "playing in the mud, playing in the sugar cane."

 

Cervera says last year produced the first good sugarcane since 2004. Drought, hurricanes and freezes plagued the crops for eight years. But Cervera says this year's crop looks very good.

 

"20 to 30 tablespoons [of sugar] off one stock," Cervera said, holding a cane. 

 

The harvesting paused Tuesday because of too much rain. U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez says one to three inches fell across the 160,000 acres on which the company grows. 

 

Cervera says the harvesting halt was an unusual turn of events that put crews behind. Sanchez says there's plenty of time to catch up. Harvesting ends six months from now.

 

"We're going to produce about 770,000 tons of refined sugar, which is over 15 billion pounds," said Sanchez.

 

During harvest season, the company employs about 1,800 people who focus just on sugar. There's also a citrus arm to the company. Sanchez says the Florida cane industry is responsible for about 12,500 jobs locally. 

 

UF/IFAS extension sugarcane agent Ron Rice says he can't imagine the Belle Glade area without the crop. 

 

"The sugarcane industry alone probably has an economic impact of close to $3 billion for the state of Florida, and without sugarcane, I have no idea what you'd replace it with," said Rice.

 

There are two other major growers in the area. Rice said Florida Crystals and Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida will begin harvesting later this month. 

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