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Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sugar Cane Fields

It all started nearly 200 years ago when farmers were drawn here by South Texas valley’s rich soil, subtropical climate and plenty of water from the Rio Grande river. At one point there were five mills crushing the cane and cranking out the sugar. But labor problems and depressed prices shut them all down by 1921. Sugar cane in south Texas became just a sweet memory.

All that changed in the early 1970’s when about a hundred farmers got together to bring cane back to the Rio Grande Valley. They built a new, modern sugar mill and today, they’re “raising cane” on about 40,000 acres.

Most sugar cane is planted by hand. They are laid down in furrows and covered with topsoil. About a year later, when the stalks are fully grown, it’s time to harvest. The wind direction and weather are checked, and warnings are given out in English and Spanish to leave the fields.

Then fire trucks arrive for igniting flames, not putting them out. The torching burns away excess leaves and other debris. It’s so dry, a forty-acre field burns in 20 minutes.

After the embers cool, the harvesters move in, chopping the stalks at ground level. Trucks carry the cut cane to a conveyor where ten ton boxes are dumped into a hopper.

The cane is washed then sent through seven crushers, or mills, to squeeze out the sweet juice.

The juice is filtered, heated and evaporated until only a concentrated syrup is left. The syrup is crystallized and the crystals spun around in a high-speed centrifuge until the raw sugar is separated from molasses.

The raw sugar’s taken to a huge warehouse, big enough to hold 70,000 tons. It’s eventually trucked to the port of Harlingen, Texas, where barges ship it off to be refined one more time before it reaches the store shelves.

Photo was taken with a Nikon D500 18-55mm lens.

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