Agri Leader

Clewiston fetes sugar cane harvest at annual festival

There's a sweet festival coming up in Clewiston starting tomorrow and running through Monday - sweet in the edible sense.

For the past 28 years, to celebrate the end of the sugarcane harvest in "America's Sweetest Town," Clewiston has held a Sugar Festival. This year's celebration will attract 10,000 to 15,000 attendees, both locals and out-of-towners, said Pam Kelley, president of the Sugar Festival Committee.

Some highlights of the multi-day event include an "awesome car show," a 5K run, a Sweet Taste recipe contest (naturally, all items must include sugar), a barbecue, arts and crafts, informational booths, music performances, and much more, said Kelley.

The musical highlights this year include country singer Dustin Lynch, who sings "Cowboys and Angels;" and Gwen Sebastian, a runner-up on NBC's show "The Voice."

Prior to the Sugar Festival, there's a Best Sugar Pageant, and the contest crowns - can you guess the name? - Miss Sugar.

There's also an annual bass fishing tournament on nearby Lake Okeechobee.

Organizers try to time the festival to match the end of harvest season, which lasts from October to March, said Kelley.

Now, if you haven't made the trek south on U.S. 27 toward Clewiston, then you may not know about the lucrative sugarcane business in Glades, Hendry, Palm Beach and Martin counties. As your official agricultural columnist and in honor of the festival, here are a few facts about the lucrative sugarcane crop.

1. If you're putting coffee in your sugar while reading this, you can thank a Florida farmer. The sugar cane business is one of the biggest agricultural industries in the state. It supports 12,800 jobs and generates $3.3 billion in annual economic activity in Florida, according to the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. In 2012, the industry provided 49 percent of the total U.S. value for sugarcane for sugar and seed, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reported in "Florida Agriculture by the Numbers."

2. Higher than average rainfall led to a challenging harvest in the season that's ending now. There was a reduced sugarcane yield and a lower volume of raw sugar produced, a March press release from the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida reported. Nonetheless, the numbers sound impressive - the 45-member cooperative produced 2.8 million tons of sugarcane. Although the cooperative does not represent all sugar cane growers, it is the joint owner of Florida Crystals Corporation and ASR Group, the latter of which markets its products through familiar brands like Domino.

3. Sugarcane is the most extensively grown row crop in Florida, according to the Palm Beach County website. The vast majority of sugarcane- 80 percent - is grown on muck soil, which is the black soil you drive past on the southern portion of U.S. 27; 20 percent of sugarcane is grown on sand. Sugarcane grows on about 440,000 acres in what's called the Everglades Agricultural Area.

4. Sugarcane is considered an environmentally friendly crop because it uses only minimal fertilizers or pesticides, the Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar Corporation reported. "The rich muck soil surrounding Lake Okeechobee provide most of the nutrients needed to produce healthy fields of sugarcane," according to the company website.

5. When people come to town for the Sugar Festival, one thing they ask about is the bagasse - what an odd name - outside the mill, said Kelley. Bagasse is excess leaves and stems produced during sugar production. It's used as an energy source at the mill, reducing its dependency on costly fuel.

6. If you want a sweeter view of the sugar business in Clewiston, then visit the town's Chamber of Commerce between October and March for its Sugarland tours. You'll board a special bus that takes you on a 4.5-hour tour of the town's sugar mill, sugar refinery, and citrus juice plant. You'll also get to chew on sugarcane. While you're in town, you can discover more about the town's agricultural history at the Clewiston Museum. If you want to try sugarcane juice, I recommend you head on over to Katy's Seafood, a Salvadoran/Mexican restaurant where I had a refreshingly large serving of guarapo - the Spanish word for sugarcane juice.