Shortly after the Fanjul family fled Cuba and arrived in Florida in 1959, they set up a small sugar-production plant on 4,000 acres of land in Western Palm Beach County. The sugarcane was harvested by hand, and the very first crop produced just 10,000 tons of sugar.
Six decades later, that modest farming operation has expanded to encompass approximately 190,000 acres across nearly 5,000 individual fields. And the family’s company – now known as Florida Crystals – is part of the world’s largest refiner and marketer of cane sugar with annual production of more than 6 million tons.
Along the way, Florida Crystals has implemented multiple techniques to improve environmental sustainability and increase economic efficiency. “As a farmer, your land is your main asset,” says Diego Luzuriaga, Florida Crystal’s Vice President of Research & Development. “You have to take care of your land, and we’re always working on better ways to do that.”
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These innovations range from such high-tech methods as GPS-guided planting tractors that are accurate to within a fraction of an inch to the decidedly low-tech option of housing barn owls throughout the fields to reduce crop loss to rats with a sweet tooth.
“The key metric in measuring sustainability is time,” Florida Crystal’s Director of Sustainability Andy Sauber says. “There is an awareness that if we want to be able to continue doing this for a long time, then we have to take care of what we have.” The company implements that approach through a variety of programs.
The tractors and harvesters at Florida Crystals don’t have steering wheels. Instead, they utilize a joystick and an iPad screen. Yes, this looks more like a PlayStation than an essential piece of farming equipment. This is no toy. It is technology that enables tractors to sync with satellite GPS systems, allowing for precision on both the leveling of the fields and the creation of the furrows.
“The GPS tells the tractor where to move soil until the whole field is completely flat. This prevents erosion and allows us to retain all the nutrients we can inside the field,” Luzuriaga says.
“Then when it comes to planting, every tractor follows the same GPS line each time. That way you don’t damage the cane or the roots, and the fertilizer goes exactly where we lay down the cane stalks. Fertilizer is one of the most expensive inputs, so we want to be very precise,” he adds.
A soil sample is taken from each field every year. These samples are then sent to the University of Florida, where they are tested for levels of phosphorous and potassium. The results are then carefully analyzed by Florida Crystals soil scientists, who use the data to propose ways of improving the growing conditions.
“They tell us on a field-by-field basis exactly what the soil needs,” Luzuriaga says. “It’s like going to a restaurant and having different choices on the menu. Only we have about 300 different choices or formulas to choose from. That way we can be very precise and give the soil exactly what is needed.”
Long before regenerative farming became trendy, Luzuriaga points out that Florida Crystals began switching up what it plants each year on its various fields. Sugarcane still dominates, of course, but it is rotated with rice (the company operates the only rice mill in Florida) along with corn, lettuce, cabbage, green beans, and radishes.
“Incorporating those other crops into the soil builds up that carbon and organic matter into the soil base,” Luzuriaga says. “We’re trying to maintain that agreement with Mother Nature. That’s key for us.”
Lack of moisture is rarely a problem for Florida farmers. If anything, the Sunshine State typically receives too much rain, especially during the summer when thunderstorms pop up nearly every afternoon. “There is usually a lot more rain in this area than the crops need,” Sauber says.
Florida Crystals endeavors to ensure that none of that rainfall goes to waste by utilizing an elaborate series of canals that are built in and around the fields. There are approximately 500 pumps within these miles of canals, and they can be used to lower or raise the water level based on whether it is the wet or dry season. The canals also move water from one planting zone to another on the far-flung operation.
“We use the rainwater to flood the rice fields. Then when we harvest the rice, we take the water out of those fields and move it through the canals to the sugarcane fields,” Luzuriaga says. “So those rice fields serve as reservoirs to hold onto the rainwater we get during the summer. That’s another way that rice is a key crop for us from a sustainable point of view.”
Even though sugarcane is a sweet treat, Luzuriaga says Florida Crystals does not have much of a problem with deer or other woodland animals chewing up the crops. Instead, rats are the biggest troublemakers.
For decades, the company tried to combat the pests with rat bait and other rodenticides. Then a few years ago, a series of boxes were placed in the fields to be used as nesting homes for barn owls. Mother Nature has proven to be the best partner. A single family of barn owls can eliminate several thousand rats per year.
Thanks to the overwhelming success of this initiative, Florida Crystals has installed approximately 600 bird boxes throughout its sugarcane fields. “It has greatly reduced our dependency on rodenticides,” Luzuriaga says. “It’s not high-tech, but it’s a very important sustainable practice.”
Perhaps the greatest example of sustainability at Florida Crystals is the company’s use of leftover fiber from milling the sugarcane to produce electricity. Each stalk of sugarcane contains approximately 6 ounces of fuel known as bagasse, which can be transformed into energy through an on-site cogeneration facility.
“There’s just an enormous amount of energy that is grown here with the cane,” Sauber says. “We are 82 percent powered by renewable energy company-wide. That includes all the operations as well as the corporate offices.”
In addition to repurposing the bagasse, Luzuriaga points out that in a typical year, Florida Crystals also repurposes approximately 1 billion gallons of water that is removed from the sugarcane prior to processing. And the leftover ash from burning the bagasse is returned to the fields as fertilizer.
“There is almost zero waste from our sugarcane,” Luzuriaga says. “The cane brings its own electricity and water, and it produces its own fertilizer. It’s the most sustainable crop in the world.”
Cary Estes is with The Land Report, the magazine of the American landowner. See LandReport.com.