I’m not sure how I ended up in a plane no bigger than the tiny Toyota I drove around in high school, flying across the state of Florida on a Sunday afternoon, but I’ve just learned to flow with it…yet another of the random situations I tend to find myself in.
I looked out past the propeller to the horizon cutting across the Everglades, and giggled nervously when the pilot told me to take the stick and keep her steady. umm…ok!
The pilot, Rick Neyman, was a friend of my parents and had recently gotten his pilot’s license and invited me up for a spin.
We flew out of Ft Lauderdale, across the belly of the state, past Lake Okeechobee and landed on the west coast in St. Pete. Our route took us directly over the deserted swampland of the Everglades (which oddly made me feel like I was back in Australia) and above the smoky center of Florida’s sugarcane industry.
Sugarcane has been grown in South Florida since the 1920s and it’s one of the most important crops for the state’s economy…but one of the most damaging for its ecosystem.
About 450,000 acres of the sweet stuff are grown every year, mostly around the lower half of Lake Okeechobee. Sugarcane is a tropical perennial grass that can reach up to 19ft and it’s super sensitive to the cold…much like us spoiled Floridians. But it does enjoy the mucky soils along the edges of the Everglades and the sandy soils common to Florida.
Two major problems that arise from the sugarcane industry are 1)heavy air pollution from burning the fields, which they do at harvest to more easily reach the cane and kill any lurking snakes, and 2)polluted and overused water from the Everglades.
Tens of thousands of acres of the Everglades have gone from teeming sub-tropical forest to near lifeless marshland due to the sugarcane field’s excessive fertilizer run-off and drainage for irrigation.
As we flew over these fields, we saw pillars of black smoke rising up all around us. It tainted the puffy white clouds stretched out in front of us, kinda like car exhaust stains fresh snow.
It left me wondering what the future holds for Florida’s sugarcane industry. Will it turn into a biofuel giant like Brazil’s sugarcane? Eating up more of the Everglades as quickly as the SUVs caking I-95 eat up fuel? Will it bring in thousands more Latino and Haitian immigrant farmworkers to underpay and abuse? Will it increase the rate of asthma that seems to be an epidemic among so many people I know in Florida?
When we landed in St Pete and got some breakfast, the waiter asked me if I wanted sugar in my tea… I made a sour face… and asked for honey.