sugar-cane harvester _ storage reservoir

Sugar-cane fields are burned before harvesting. The two employees of the new Sierra Club office in Belle Glade want growers to use “green harvesting” rather than “pre-harvest burning” — but also stress that their goal is cooperation, not confrontation. / Photos and video by J.D. Vivian

The Sierra Club has opened an office in the Everglades Agricultural Area at 136 S. Main St., Unit A, in Belle Glade. It’s the first national nonprofit organization to do so.

One of the main goals of the office’s two employees is to advocate for so-called “green harvesting” of sugar cane, says Patrick Ferguson, the Stop Sugar Field Burning Campaign organizer in the office. The other Sierra Club employee in the office is Diana Umpierre, Everglades Restoration Campaign organizer.

Ferguson says, “One of the things we hear about over and over again is the cane-burning problem out here. People every year deal with six to more months of ash and soot.”

Patrick Ferguson serves as the Stop Sugar Field Burning Campaign organizer for the Belle Glade office of the Sierra Club.

The most common practice is to burn sugar-cane fields just before harvesting. This “pre-harvest burning” clears away much of the “trash” — the leaves and the tops on sugar-cane stalks — making it easier for the mechanical harvesters to gather the cane.

To watch a video of mechanical harvesting of sugar cane, click on the link below.

Why burn?

The burning eliminates “leafy non-sucrose-containing material so that it does not have to be transported and milled,” according to a 2009 article that Bob Wiedenfeld of Texas A&M University published in the Journal of the American Society of Sugar Cane Technologists. *

Wiedenfeld’s report goes on to explain, “Burning can be detrimental to soil structure and nutrient availability due to the loss of soil organic matter. Retention of unburned residues can increase nutrient conservation, reduce weed growth and conserve soil moisture.”

“Black snow”

Critics of pre-harvest burning point to the air pollution and to the “black snow” — the ash — that it creates. The ash can fall on cars and homes during the sugar-cane harvest season.

Both Ferguson and Umpierre are careful to explain that their goal — and the goal of the Sierra Club — is cooperation, not confrontation.

Ferguson says, “We don’t want to obstruct economic opportunity. Whatever programs we develop, we need people to buy in. That way, we’re all allies; we (the Sierra Club) are not leading the charge.”

“We really do care”

Echoing that sentiment, Umpierre adds, “We don’t expect the community to agree with us on everything. We just want to help. We really do care.”

Diana Umpierre is the Everglades Restoration Campaign organizer for the Belle Glade office of the Sierra Club.

Umpierre also oversees the Sierra Club’s “Nearby Nature” initiative. This program focuses on youth and communities, advocating that they get outside and explore parks, waters and other natural spaces in and around developed urban areas.

One such area she mentions is Torry Island in Belle Glade: “It’s gorgeous.” The 640-acre Torry Island features a marina, a 350-site campground, and a six-lane boat ramp offering access to Lake Okeechobee’s legendary bass fishing. Tropical birds and other wildlife are common sights.

The Sierra Club, an environmental organization, was founded on May 28, 1892, in San Francisco, Calif., by John Muir. The Scottish-American preservationist and naturalist in 1903 took then-President Teddy Roosevelt on a three-day wilderness camping trip in Yosemite National Park, in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.

For more information, about the Sierra Club’s Belle Glade office, call 561-983-8655. For information about the Sierra Club, visit

* The full title of Bob Wiedenfeld’s report is Effects of Green Harvesting vs. Burning on Soil Properties, Growth and Yield of Sugarcane in South Texas.