By Les Harrison, UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director
October has ushered in the fall gardening season. Turnips, mustard, radishes, carrots and a variety of other cool season crops have emerged and are growing.
Another once common crop ready to be planted in October is sugar cane. Cane for processing is harvested, and select stalks with the most desirable traits are planted in October and November.
Planting is accomplished by digging a shallow furrow and laying the canes end-to-end. The cane is then covered with the soil removed from the furrows. Sugar cane may also be planted in north Florida during March.
In the days before mass market sweeteners, almost every farm had a patch of sugar cane. Some varieties were planted for processing into cane syrup, molasses and raw sugar, and some for chewing by the young and those with a sweet tooth.
When not pulling a plow or wagon, mules spent their days walking in a circle to drive a cane mill. Enterprising growers frequently sold their excess production as a means of generating another revenue stream to support the family farm.
Roadside sales of homemade cane syrup were a common sight in the rural south for many years. Sampling was a quality assurance courtesy offered to the potential buyer confirming the syrup had not been scorched while cooking.
The sugar cane plant is a form of grass with high sucrose content. It originated in south Asia where it has been cultivated for several millennia.
Over the centuries, sugar cane production followed the trade routes west. Christopher Columbus brought it to the New World on his second voyage west.
South Florida has long had a large commercial cane sugar industry with thousands of acres committed to growing and processing the sweetener on the outskirts of the Everglades. Louisiana is the other big sugar cane state, but Brazil is the global production champion.
The perennial nature of sugar cane allows growers to harvest the cane, and then grow the following years’ crop off the existing roots. Ratooning, as it is termed, is a widely used practice which has application for growing in panhandle Florida.
From a nutritional standpoint, sugar cane based products are a source of carbohydrates in the diet. Generally speaking, the reason for addition of sugar to a recipe is an issue of taste and flavor.
The sugar cane currently growing in the UF/IFAS Wakulla County demonstration garden was planted in November 2012. Tours of the garden are available during normal business hours.