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Movement In Glades Communities Aims To End Sugarcane Burning

The world's largest sugar mill, owned by U.S. Sugar Corporation, billows smoke beyond a recently harvested cane field in Clewiston.
Amy Green
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Steve Messam describes his city, Belle Glade, as having two main exports:

"Sugar," he said, "and wide receivers."

Local lore has it that National Football League standouts -- including Super Bowl-winning wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Santonio Holmes -- hone their speed by chasing rabbits through burning fields, as controlled fires strip sugarcane of excess leaves in preparation for the harvest.

But some in the Glades communities around Lake Okeechobee's southern rim say the smoke from those fires is a serious health risk. Their fears have ignited a movement to " stop the burn" and use greener harvesting techniques.

"They are burning the trash off the cane," Messam, one of the movement's organizers, told a crowd of environmentalists and policymakers at last week's Everglades Coalition meeting. "It's supposed to increase the sugar density inside of the stalk. But it's really causing problems to myself and to a lot of the folks in the Glades communities."

Messam, who grew up in South Bay and now lives with his family in Belle Glade, says that for the six months each year when sugar growers burn their fields people’s allergies get worse and ash discolors homes and businesses.

"Daily, we have what we call 'black snow' raining down on our homes, raining down on our cars and causing a lot of respiratory issues," he said.

Sugar companies dispute negative health impacts from the cane burning. And over years of ongoing debate between environmental groups and sugarcane growers, state and county health officials have maintained there's little evidence the fires cause negative health impacts.

In 2015, Palm Beach County's spokesman for the state health department  told WLRN there's no indication of a violation of federal air-quality standards.

Messam says in communities where U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals are people's main sources of income (unless you're an NFL star)  it's hard to generate support for a movement that might result in restrictions on burning or force growers to invest in new harvesting technology.

"It’s almost as we are beholden to them because they are the largest employer to the Glades communities," he said. 

As much as 75 percent of Florida’s sugarcane comes from the region, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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Kate Stein can't quite explain what attracts her to South Florida. It's more than just the warm weather (although this Wisconsin native and Northwestern University graduate definitely appreciates the South Florida sunshine). It has a lot to do with being able to travel from the Everglades to Little Havana to Brickell without turning off 8th Street. It's also related to Stein's fantastic coworkers, whom she first got to know during a winter 2016 internship.Officially, Stein is WLRN's environment, data and transportation journalist. Privately, she uses her job as an excuse to rove around South Florida searching for stories à la Carl Hiaasen and Edna Buchanan. Regardless, Stein speaks Spanish and is always thrilled to run, explore and read.