Sugarcane Fields and Factory Smoke in Belle Glade, Florida

Tons of pure white crystal are loaded up and sent across America from this Palm Beach County region on the daily; but can you name the substance they’re producing?

Here’s a clue: Coffee and donuts just aren’t the same without it.

The substance in question is refined white cane sugar of course, and in Belle Glade, South Bay, Pahokee, and all around the south side of Lake Okeechobee, it’s the big business that helps propel one of America’s favorite commodities.

Sugarcane transport trucks, refinery, regulated field burn. All photos ©Jacob Katel. All Rights Reserved

Florida sugarcane accounts for a significant statistical percentage of the U.S. Sugar market. It provides about fifty percent of all sugarcane-based sugar production, and about twenty percent of all sugar in the USA. The rest comes from sugar beets.

It’s a pretty important piece of the pie in the State of Florida’s economy, and much of the growing takes place in the Everglades Agricultural Area south and west of Lake Okeechobee.

When it’s industrial machinery is running full speed ahead, it’s quite a sight to behold, with the fields, refineries, and trucking all happening in full view of good old U.S. HWY 27, which conveniently runs all the way up to Indiana.

In fact, it’s happening right now, and the above video is proof. What you see is the smoke from the burning of a sugarcane field as well as the smoke from the U.S. Sugarcane Growers Cooperative of Florida burning the leftover cane material after the sugar has been extracted to power the factory. It’s called “bagasse” and it’s a cleaner alternative to coal.

Sugar cane refinery burning “bagasse” to power the factory, which is leftover cane byproduct that is cleaner to burn than coal. – ©Jacob Katel. all rights reserved.

But as jurisprudence will attest, the people who live, work, and go to school in the area are tired of breathing in the smokey ash particulates that fall from the sky and that these residents call “black snow.”

There’s smoke in the air just about every day of burning season, with hundreds of prescribed fires taking place throughout, and burns occurring on a regularly scheduled basis from October to May, unless it’s raining or there’s a big event. These fires send 12 – 16 mile plumes of ash and smoke into the air, land, and water in the area.

The fiery activity is all trackable on the Florida Forest Service website, with whom all burns are legally registered. (Use the click boxes to filter by active plumes).

Smoke plume seen from Lake Okeechobee. ©Jacob Katel. All rights reserved.

There are lawsuits on the books, stories in the media, and environmentalists going mad about this and other issues related to the industry, but some of those issues have gone on for decades and some would say that little much has changed over the years.

The growers and refiners would argue that environmentalism is at the heart of what they do. And they have their own studies and statistics to back up their claims. They are also involved with various other efforts to clean and treat affected water in Stormwater Treatment Areas and other new water management systems. And they are or have been involved in major efforts to restore historic flows of fresh water across the Everglades.

Everglades Agricultural Area detail – ©Jacob Katel. All rights reserved

It’s definitely a complex issue, but usually the arguments on either side involve lots of words and few visuals. So here are some documentary photos to help you understand what’s going on so that you can think and decide for yourself what it all means.

By Jacob Katel

Diving into news about water.