Florida’s Prescribed Burn Program & Sugarcane Harvesting: What You Need to Know

S.A.F.E.: Sustainable Agricultural Fire Education

Florida’s Prescribed Burn Program & Sugarcane Harvesting: What You Need to Know

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About Florida’s prescribed burn program

In an average year, the Florida Forest Service issues approximately 88,000 authorizations to allow landowners and agencies the opportunity to conduct a prescribed burn on an average of over 2.1 million acres each year. Prescribed burns reduce hazardous biomass fuel buildups, providing increased protection to people, their homes and the forests. Other uses include disease control in young pines, wildlife habitat improvement, range management, preservation of endangered plant and animal species and the maintenance of fire-dependent ecosystems.

Why do sugarcane farmers need to burn their fields?

Pre-harvest burns are an essential part of the sugarcane harvest in South Florida and are consistent with the state’s heavily permitted and regulated land management practices. In addition to helping the farmer remove the leafy material (known as “trash”) from the sugarcane stalk, pre-harvest burns also help to keep excessive amounts of additional plant matter off the fields that are vital to growing crops in South Florida every year. Unlike in other areas of the world where sugarcane is grown, South Florida’s climate and muck soils are not conducive to leaving a large amount of additional decaying plant matter left on the field. Farmers initiate a pre-harvest burn before the sugarcane stalks are harvested and transported to the mill. Burning the leaves off the stalks also makes the transport of sugarcane to the mill more efficient. Studies have shown that without a pre-harvest burn, sugarcane farmers would need up to 30 percent more land to achieve the same yields. Carefully controlled pre-harvest burns are far safer than the risk of setting the fields alight with workers trapped inside.

 

According to a 2013 study led by the University of Florida, green harvesting can have negative consequences on the sugarcane crop. The study found, “young shoots emerged from green cane harvested fields may suffer frost damage and delayed growth when air temperatures are near or below freezing.” An older study conducted by the University of Puerto Rico found that plant matter left on the field through green harvesting may prevent nitrogen in soils from enhancing crop growth while also promoting insect infestation and fungi growth (Source: Influence of the Handling of Sugar Cane Trash on Yields and Soil Properties, 1951).

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Is this process overseen or regulated by the state?

Yes. Every pre-harvest burn for a field prior to the sugarcane harvest requires an individual field permit, which is issued through the Florida Forest Service. Permits are granted only on the day of harvest when conditions at each location meets suitable criteria including wind direction and atmospheric conditions and location relative to sensitive areas such as schools or highways. For example, permits are not granted when the wind is blowing in the direction of heavily populated residential areas or schools, churches or businesses.

 

Are pre-harvest burns on sugarcane fields hazardous to my health?

Based on the public health data available and years of studies on this farming practice, there is no direct link between pre-harvest burning on sugarcane fields and health issues. Here are several datapoints showing this:

 

  • The Glades communities enjoy some of the best air quality in the state of Florida, with Palm Beach and Hendry Counties ranking among the top of all of Florida’s 67 counties. (Source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, 2017).

  • Hendry and Palm Beach County public health data shows there is no uptick in emergency room visits for respiratory complications during the sugarcane harvest season. Rather, residents of the Glades region experience normal health issues such as allergies during a change in the seasons. Local medical officials report Glades respiratory may be more likely due to poor indoor air quality in homes, related to personal smoking habits and a lack of proper ventilation.

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Green Harvesting 

Why do sugarcane farmers use green harvesting in certain places but not across all of their farms?

Under certain circumstances, sugarcane farmers remove some of the leafy material from sugarcane stalks in a process known as green harvesting, however, this occurs extremely infrequently in industrialized countries and only when conducting a pre-harvest burn is not an option. During certain weather events, such as when it is too wet or when the wind is blowing toward a populated area, a pre-harvest burn permit may be denied and less than optimal green harvesting may be conducted. When this occurs, it can slow the harvest process down and leave excessive plant matter on the fields and results in a number of less than optimal results.

 

I have heard that Brazil & Australia’s sugarcane farmers have switched to green harvesting. Why can’t our farmers make the same switch?

Brazil farms more than 20 million acres of sugarcane every year. Approximately 3 to 5 percent of this area still is burned prior to harvest, meaning that Brazil conducts a pre-harvest burn on 700,000 to one million acres of land per year. That is two to three times the acreage of the sugarcane lands burned in Florida. In Australia, the regions with soil, climate, and cane conditions most similar to South Florida still burn their sugarcane fields prior to harvest.

 

I have heard that sugarcane fields in places such as near Wal-Mart in Clewiston are green harvested. Is this true? If so, why?

No. The same permitting conditions are taken into consideration for the Walmart location as they are for any other business or location. Factors include highway locations, wind direction, wind speed, and weather.

Is it true that the trash on the sugarcane stalk has commercial value?

There have been no large-scale commercial uses proven to be economically or environmentally-feasible for the massive amounts of green leaf material from Florida’s sugarcane crops prior to harvest. What does have a sustainable, environmentally-friendly value is the leftover sugarcane fiber after milling, known as bagasse. This material is used by sugarcane farming companies to not only power their mills, but to also produce sustainable energy that is used to power up more than 100,000 homes in South Florida. A new, renewable packaging company that converts post-processing sugarcane fiber (or bagasse) to compostable packaging and food service products (such as plates, bowls and take-out containers) has recently opened in Belle Glade, on site of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative mill. Use of bagasse is unrelated to green harvesting. No one in Florida has found a large-scale commercial operation that has demonstrates any feasible way to handle the amount of waste left on the fields by green harvest operations

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The SAFE Communities Initiative.

The Sustainable Agriculture Fire Education (S.A.F.E.) Communities Initiative is a group of Business, Agricultural, Sugarcane Farmers, Community and Faith leaders which seeks to educate residents on the fact that pre-harvest agricultural burns are carefully regulated by the Florida Forest Service, are not linked through any medical research to negative health conditions and are necessary in South Florida’s hot, humid climate.  S.A.F.E. Communities is an initiative of the Lake Okeechobee Business Alliance