Agriculture Day Dispatch

February 26, 2013

Agriculture Day - February 13, 2013






By Rose Novotny


In typical Portuguese fashion, and being forty-some-odd miles away from our meeting place this morning, The National Croquet Center, I arrived “promptly” at 7:57 AM! Just in time to confirm that an awesome breakfast was being served (or should I say… handed out) out of the back of a pick-up truck! How much more apropos could this be for Agricultural Day??? Although I did not partake – I can’t break with the habit of having breakfast in my car on the way to huh… anywhere – I did hear several of my classmates rave about the tastiness of their morning meal. Thank you to Pioneer Growers Co-Operative for being our Breakfast Sponsor.

Matt Hoffman, LPBC Class of 2012 and West Palm Beach Native, along with Arthur Kirstein, IV (Go Gators!), joined us on the bus and we were off to our first location! No… WAIT!!! Who is that running a full speed toward the bus??? No worries Jerold… We gotcha!

And we were finally on our way. Arthur (who called his day with us his 6th Tour with LPBC), certainly gave us an excellent overview of what to expect of our day. The recommendation was to be sure to use the restrooms at SFWMD as we would be out in the fields most of the day and there weren’t a heck of a lot of restrooms out there!  Here are some of the things we learned on the bus while on our way to SFWMD:

  • Palm Beach County is the largest producer of sweet corn
  • One million crates of corn, or 48 million ears of corn, are shipped out every week
  • We learned that the difference between Field Corn and Sweet Corn is that the first is used for making corn oil, popcorn, and to feed cattle; and the latter is for the eating pleasure of us humans.
  • “Every Taco in Mexico is made with our corn!” that’s a direct quote…
  • Sugar cane is a 3 or 4 year crop. Other crops will then need to be planted in those fields to help replenish the soil of nutrients.
  • One acre of land yields 4.5 tons of sugar.
  • The sugar industry is Vertically Integrated, meaning it goes from field to supermarket.
  • There are two different types of soil in this area: 1) Peat/muck – organic soils which support the growth of sugar cane, sweet corn, lettuce, radishes, celery, green beans, sod and rice; and 2) sand – mineral soil primarily used for bell peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, Chinese vegetables, nurseries, and equestrian use.
  • Florida Crystals is the only company in Florida that is carbon neutral. All of its sugar mills are self-energized.
  • Palm Beach County is a winter-growing area – the only crop that grows in the summer is rice.
  • Although hand-planted, sugarcane is a mostly mechanized industry.
  • Great care must be taken when burning the sugar cane fields. The wind must not be blowing from the West, or the calls from Wellington residents can be quite the challenge to deal with!
  • The U.S. consumes 10 million tons of sugar per year.
  • One in six pounds of sugar in the U.S. comes from Palm Beach County.

By 8:40 we arrived at our first location: SFWMD Tour of S-5A Pump Station. Mr. Tom DeBold, Superintendent at SFWMD, introduced us to Gary, who has worked in pump stations for 28 years. Although it was difficult to hear the narration of this station’s purpose, we were able to determine the incredible need and efficiency of the work conducted here every day. There are six, massive, 16-HP Diesel engines that run 360,000 gallons of water per minute, per unit! That’s impressive. Gary also mentioned 800 cubic feet per second, per unit! Well, that’s certainly much more than I can comprehend… This is also probably because, at one point, our brains got a bit fuzzy as our bus driver backed the bus up to the front opening of the building and left it running…These STA’s (Stormwater Treatment Areas) use “green technology” to remove excess phosphorous loads by 83 percent.

At 9:15, after invading Tom’s facilities, we were on our way to our next location: Hundley Farms, Inc. radish fields. Tom Perryman, who has been in the industry for 21 years, told us about the radish crops. Again, it was a bit difficult to hear him due to the machines picking the radishes, but we heard that 1200 acres of radishes are planted per year, as well as 1,100 acres of green beans. 500,000 seeds per acre are planted by machine.

TKM Farms, and their Lettuce Field Operations were next. Nick and Mike Basore oversee 7,000 acres of lettuce fields. This is where we all had the once-in-a-lifetime (OK… maybe twice in one day! How lucky are we?) to wear a hairnet as we walked through the lettuce fields. We found that Iceberg Lettuce is another product that gets harvested and packaged right in the fields. And because the lettuce is pretty much “self-enclosed”, the packaging team simply needs to remove the outer leaves and it’s all set to go! We also learned that, often times, when we think we are being more health-conscious by purchasing our vegetables at a Green Market rather than our local Publix, it may actually turn out that the products being sold at these specialty markets may truly be what isn’t good enough to sell to Publix! For food safety reasons, Iceberg lettuce is planted on the outside of the fields, while Romaine lettuce is planted in the middle of the fields.

Darryl Moore, Harvest Superintendent for Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, then treated us to a “cold burn” of a sugar cane field. This was quite an impressive sight! Although there was nothing “nothing cold” about this particular burn, it simply meant that, due to high winds blowing from the West on this day (remember the Wellington residents???), this was sort of a backburn, which can take several hours to burn through the sugarcane field. In contrast, a “hot burn” will take typically go through 120 acres of field waste in 15-20 minutes. We were all amazed to see how the sugarcane gets from field to production facility! Those machines looked like they came right out of a Stars Wars movie! More to come on the sugarcane cropping…

A great bar-b-que lunch with all the trimmings - including corn bread - was then provided at the University of Florida EREC Center. Thank you Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida for sponsoring our lunch. At this point I would like to thank all of my classmates for coming to my rescue when, while taking copious notes for this report, I spilled a full glass of water all over the table…

Nick Larson, Senior Biological Scientist for UF, delivered an eye-opening presentation during lunch and then gave us a tour of their facilities. Here are some of the things we learned during lunch:

  • UF has 13 research centers.
  • This Belle Glade Center covers roughly 700,000 acres of agricultural land
  • It is paid for by tax money
  • It was founded in 1921
  • The Wedgeworth Lab was built in 1990
  • Belle Glade are was the last place in the U.S. to be settled
  • There are still 40 acres of virgin land
  • A total of 221 Acres have research experience
  • Projects were started to save the Everglades.
  • The Soil and Water Sciences have helped to determine the nutrients in the soil, soil loss, and better ways to farm the area.
  • The research team conducts 8,000 soil tests per year on ~700,000 acres of land
  • Wildlife ecology is very important. Must have strong pest management (tropical sod webworms and corn earworm), as well as control the Pest Bird popula-tion (Red-Winged Black Birds)
  • Plant diseases such as orange rust and downy mildew must also be addressed
  • Another major concern and one that the Research Center is aggressively addressing is the amount of soil loss this area has gone through. As we toured the facilities, Nick told us that the original houses that are still a part of this community used to have only 3 steps leading to the entrance. They now have 11 steps due to the soil erosion.
  • Soil loss has now slowed down to about ½ inch per year due to better water management. Nick feels that, once the soil is gone, they will be left with three options:
    • Sell it back to the state
    • Grow rice
    • Put cows back on it
  • Growing rice actually slows down the oxidation of soil.

The next stop was a tour of Pioneer Growers, led by Jon Browder, Sales Manager. This is where we got the second opportunity to don our famous hairnets! We witnessed the packaging of corn and string beans. Their machinery is so advanced that no pictures were allowed inside the facilities. We want to thank them as well for the great goodies – we all got to take home some delicious sweet corn and string beans.

Our last, but certainly most impressive, stop was the tour of the Glades Sugar House Mill, led by Matt Hoffman, Manager of Marketing and Special Projects. We got split up into groups and had a fabulous tour of four stories of sugarcane processing.

Here are some more memorable stats about this industry:

  • The sugarcane industry in Florida is owned by a Co-Operative of 46 family farms, which produce 350,000 tons of sugar
  • Sugarcane is a C4 grass
  • It is composed of 80% water, 10% fiber, and 10% sugar
  • The Co-Operative also markets to the Domino sugar label
  • They receive no subsidies from the government
  • Cost of production is about 22¢ per share. If sugar commodities trade below that, they’re operating at a loss
  • They do not export outside the country
  • There are no waste by-products from sugarcane. Every bit of it is used to produce energy to power the mill, have enough energy left over to power 40,000 homes, and even the left over muck that is collected on the machines is returned back to the fields as a nutrient

There are probably many things that I missed on this report and, for that, my apologies…

Overall, I feel this was an awesome day in which most of us got an education many will never have the privilege of obtaining! Thank to your our Sponsors, to our Day Chairs - Keith Wedgworth, Matt Hoffman, Gene Duff, and Renee Layman – and to LPBC for putting together an simply terrific day!