Imagine a pile of sugar 90 feet high, 150 feet wide and 1500 feet long. That’s about the size of the pile of raw sugar that is processed out of the one sugar mill in Texas — located right down the road from us (well, 20+ miles away — we’re in Texas after all and big mileages are considered little down here).
One advantage of living here in the RV resort is there’s a full time activities director during the winter season and they (it’s really a couple) do a great job of bringing interesting things here to the park. One recent example was a presentation by the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers about their sugar processing operation here in the valley.
There’s a lot of sugar cane grown here in the Rio Grande Valley. Cane needs a lot of water and although the rainfall here doesn’t meet the needs of the cane plant (a member of the grass family) the irrigation does. So, this year they are harvesting 42,000 acres of sugar cane. We have cane fields around us here in Los Fresnos — on several sides. Watching the crop grow and being cut is a curiosity for us non-natives because it’s such a densely growing crop and it looks like a virtual wall when you’re up close.
At this point in history cane is only grown for sugar in three states: Florida (with the most cane, and the most mills), Louisiana, and Texas. All the sugar grown here is processed in this plant near us and all of it is shipped (by boat) to Louisiana (New Orleans) where it is processed into table sugar by Domino. Molasses, which is a natural byproduct of cane processing is sold to cattle feed lots through out Texas — molasses being an excellent feed source for iron to keep the beef cattle healthy!
Cane takes a full year to grow from new shoots off a harvested plant rootstock. The planted cane is good for about 5-6 seasons at which point it is usually alternated for another crop for a year or two, and then replanted as sugar cane. From planting in August through to starting the harvest cycle the following October all we see are green fields. Come October and the beginning of the harvest process and from time to time we notice the fields being burned off — meaning that the dead leaves on the plants are being burned — not the crop, just the excess vegetation that could no longer get enough light to continue growing as the plants got taller and taller.
When you see it taking place it looks an inferno. And after hearing all the precautions that are taken to keep the burn safe I was impressed. But still… Seeing a ring of fire around 500 acres of cane and watching that fire ring (circling the entire field) moving towards the center of the field in a horrendous roar of wind is quite the thing to behold. And an entire field will burn off — again, just the dead leaves — in about 25-30 minutes. It’s quite impressive.
There were questions taken about the environmental issues and I found it interesting that the presenter didn’t really talk much about that. He made a point of emphasizing that the only thing burnt is agricultural product — I suppose in the sense that the USFS does controlled burns of forest floor accumulation — and that at some point in the future they expect that public pressure will force them to harvest all of the cane including the dead leaves, but he never once used the word pollution. It was always about “public pressure.” Not knowing much about agriculture I’m not taking any side on the value or danger of a 30 minute burn once a year. I don’t know enough to have an opinion.
After being cut the cane is taken to the plant where for 9 months a year it is processed. Considering that the crushing process is quite brutal it’s interesting that they only need 3 months a year for maintenance to keep the plant up to snuff and the parts all working correctly.
The plant is 10 stories tall. The warehouse where they store their product before shipping is actually only 90 feet high, 150 feet wide and 600 feet long — but they fill and empty that warehouse 2 1/2 times each season. Hence the visual of a 1500 foot long pile of sugar! Entire trucks are lifted up on inclines to dump the cane into the processing mill and it’s quite a bizarre Erector Set sort of operation!
Like with many industrial plants there are no longer tours offered by the company. Liability issues — and I’m sure privacy issues — have put an end to sharing with the public what’s going on inside industrial plants today. Still, the fact that they are willing to send a rep out to meet with the public and share their story is a good thing.
One thing for sure — I’ll never look at a bag of sugar the same way.
Thanks for stopping and why not check in again tomorrow to see what we’re up to.