South Florida’s Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) farmland is among the most fertile and productive anywhere in the world. And for more than 55 years, Florida Crystals’ farmers have been tending to these fields to deliver farm-fresh products to tables across America.
Florida Crystals Corporation has taken technology to its sugarcane and rice farms to deliver greater food yields with the most sustainable and efficient use of resources.
The company’s tractors, harvesters and farm equipment that help harvest 40,000 tons of sugarcane every day during harvesting season from October through April are guided by GPS technology. Data from the West Palm Beach-based company’s team of IT and research professionals in its labs, computer centers and even “the cloud” ensures each of its 190,000 acres provides the greatest possible yield with the lowest impact.
“Our investment in Precision Agriculture and advanced prescriptive farming techniques in the Everglades Agricultural Area is helping preserve one of the region’s and the nation’s important food providers,” says Dr. Diego Luzuriaga, vice president of research and development with Florida Crystals. “We’re getting an abundant amount of locally grown food while using resources in the most sustainable manner possible. This is healthy for the economy, the environment and our future.”
Investment Brings Science, Technology to the Fields
Historically, agriculture was about people manually working the soil. But, today’s farmers work the soil, keyboards, “the cloud” and big data in a practice called Precision Agriculture.
As part of a multi-million dollar investment in advanced, data-driven farming and research and development, over the past five years, Florida Crystals has put together a team of more than 30 scientists, researchers, engineers, analysts and database programmers, including a dozen PhDs, to drive its next generation of farming programs.
Working from a newly constructed network of research and laboratory facilities, open-concept offices and greenhouse space in Belle Glade, Florida Crystals’ scientists and agricultural experts collaborate to develop and implement new technology into one of the world’s oldest professions.
For instance, data from NASA satellites and sensors in the fields or on farm equipment is streamed back to the team at the center of operations. Researchers track everything from weather, rainfall and irrigation, to fertilizer use, soil type, crop-growth patterns and yields. A bi-weekly Vegetation Index tracks crop health and the presence of disease, even the quality or volume of sucrose in the different varieties of sugarcane in the fields.
These and more science-driven practices are the bedrock of the company’s environmental sustainability. For example, before fertilizer is applied, 36 soil sub-samples are collected from each 35-acre field to determine the exact level of nutrients in the soil. Farmers then know exactly what the plant needs and provide only what the plant will absorb for nutrition as it grows.
Visual observations by farm managers are now accompanied by satellite imagery — and even drones flying over the fields — to help agricultural experts better collect data to predict the tonnage each field might yield and compare to yields from past years to determine the health or productivity of particular areas. “Precision irrigation” through sensors, weather data and pump telemetry helps manage the water needs of the crop in a more exact and automated manner.
The information creates geographical data maps that expand on 20-year trends that help scientists correlate field productivity and prescribe remedies.
From sensors in the ground to eyes in the sky, the pursuit of all things Precision is improving efficiency, conserving resources and heightening sustainable farming.
Steering a New Path to a Better Harvest
Manual tractors working the fields once were a cause of crop damage. Farmers steered the vehicles best they could. Even slight variations in the path, however, could crush plants and stunt growth for consecutive years.
Today, GPS-technology built into tractors and harvesters keeps them on precise lines in each farm row, eliminating row skips or crop damage, boosting yields and reducing fuel consumption by decreasing unnecessary movement.
GPS-enabled agriculture in the Everglades Agricultural Area works like this. Each farm is laser-leveled to be uniformly flat. A GPS-enabled furrowing tractor then creates perfectly straight rows, which are digitally recorded as A/B lines and saved in software. Whether it’s for sugarcane, rice, sweet corn, green beans or other area crops, the recorded lines are then transferred to each subsequent piece of equipment that will work the farm, from nutrient applications to harvest.
In sugarcane, technology-equipped harvesters don’t simply cut stalks — sensors and scales also weigh the cane and determine yield, which is loaded into the database.
GPS receivers also track vehicle speed, acceleration, braking and steering — within an inch of the given coordinates, further decreasing fuel consumption.
“Science, technology and modern farming are what is allowing farmers to increase food production to keep feeding the ever-rising global population,” explains Luzuriaga.
Florida’s Partner in Preserving the Environment
Of all of Florida’s economic pillars, agriculture is the closest to nature. With research and development in pursuit of sustainable agricultural practices, not only is Florida Crystals growing more food using fewer resources, it is also preserving the environment for future generations.
The company’s Palm Beach County renewable energy facility recycles leftover sugarcane fiber, called “bagasse,” to produce clean energy that powers its sugar operations, reducing the use of fossil fuels. In fact, sugarcane ranks highest among all cultivated crops at capturing solar energy in reusable form.
Farmers in Palm Beach County’s western agricultural basin, the EAA, are also proud of their collaboration as a farming community, partnering with the USDA and the University of Florida on research to naturally develop new sugarcane varieties that can achieve higher sucrose content or be cold tolerant or disease resistant. These varieties have been shared and grown around the globe, including Central and South America and Africa.
Its drive to be the most sustainable food provider, Florida Crystals says, comes from its long heritage of family farming, where each generation has taught the next the importance of being good stewards of the land.