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Palm Beach County sugar cane crop hit hard by wet weather

Unprecedented January rains have flooded the sugar cane fields around Lake Okeechobee, damaging Palm Beach County’s signature crop and wiping out millions of dollars worth of vegetables.

“Some fields have received 12 inches of rain in January. We are in uncharted territory,” Barbara Miedema, spokeswoman for the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida in Belle Glade, said Thursday. “We are in a low field of lettuce right now. It’s completely ruined.”

In comparison, the historical annual average rainfall for the period from the start of harvest in mid-October to January 27 going back to 2009 is only 8 inches.

The Glades area’s agricultural industry is on track to experience the wettest January on record. The weather impacts on the Florida sugar cane industry reach from field preparation all the way through the harvesting and milling functions and could cost the industry millions, the Cooperative, U.S. Sugar Corp. and Florida Crystals Corp. officials said jointly Thursday.

The bulk of the state’s more than 400,000 acres of sugar cane is grown in Palm Beach County.

Although the extent and impact of the damage won’t be known until all the cane is processed in the spring, the harvesting season could be the longest ever. When the muck fields are wet, harvesting equipment cannot be brought in.

The cane crop is usually wrapped up by April, but harvesting is expected to continue into May.

The industry’s four sugar mills that normally run 24/7 have been forced to shut down off and on for an average of 16 days each due to the severe weather.

“Industry-wide, it costs millions of dollars for every day you are shut down, said Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar Corp. spokeswoman Judy Sanchez. “You have to close out all the processes that are under way and shut those down. You won’t have any cane coming in to take its place.

“The El Niño weather has adversely affected agriculture, particularly vegetables and sugar cane. It’s not just standing water in the fields delaying our harvesting and processing, the water is damaging our crops and sugar yields, both this year’s crop and next year’s crop,” Sanchez said.

Ron Rice, Palm Beach County extension service director, said, “It’s a nightmare for the mills. The best thing for a mill is to keep it supplied 24/7. When you start having these disruptions, it does not start back up in the same condition. It takes a while to get the whole system rolling and humming along again.”

When cane stays in the field past its ideal harvest date, it deteriorates and its sugar accumulation curve starts to drop, Rice said. Ultimately, the amount of sugar the cane yields declines.

Fields of young plant cane are in standing water and are most likely ruined, which affects the next three years’s crops. Wind and rain have also flattened the cane, making it “lay over” and become more difficult to harvest, the sugar companies said.

Wet weather also means the cane brings more mud into the process, which causes increased wear and tear on equipment, added West Palm Beach-based Florida Crystals’ spokeswoman Marianne Martinez. A longer cane grinding season will also result in less time off-season to repair equipment.

Sweet corn, green beans, lettuce, radishes, celery, parsley and other crops are also grown in the Glades and rotated with sugar cane. Those crops, less hardy than sugar cane, have been hit hard.

Sweet corn, the Everglades Agricultural Area’s largest vegetable crop, has experienced a 50 percent loss to date. The planting season runs for about four more weeks, so the full acreage might not be planted. The EAA has an eight-week period to sell the spring sweet corn crop.

EAA growers together market more than 7.5 million 50-ear boxes of sweet corn in the spring, or nearly 1 million boxes a week.

“Sweet corn has only a short storage life, so once you miss that window, it’s a loss,” Martinez said.

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