Florida Clewiston Sugarland Tour Sugar Cane Mill
Clewiston and the Sugarland Tour of a Sugar Cane Mill & Refinery plus a Citrus Juice Processing Plant all in Florida

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Clewiston and the Sugarland Tour of a Sugar Cane Mill & Refinery plus a Citrus Juice Processing Plant all in Florida

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Florida: Clewiston and the Sugarland Tour of a Sugar Cane Mill & Refinery plus a Citrus Juice Processing Plant

Monday, February 9, 2004
Grandma's Grove, La Belle (25-miles east of Ft Myers) N26° 44.190' W81° 28.753'
$16 for "overflow site" 15 amps & water---central dump available

This was a FULL day for us-- from can to can't. The weather was perfect.

We headed to Clewiston this morning to take the Sugar land Tour offered by the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce. The tour was a bit on the expensive side at $27.00 each but that included lunch at the Clewiston Inn so at least $8.00 of that price had to include lunch. The tour was nearly 5-hours long and very well done. By the end of the tour we felt the price was right and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area.

The tour included a brief history of Clewiston and how the town was planned by a professional planner back in 1919. John Nolen, the highly regarded City Planner who designed Clewiston, for a development company, relied on classical architecture and wide boulevards creating vistas and green spaces that became parks and plazas. At his insistence the development company even went to the expense of planting 1,800 trees.

Royal Palm trees line many boulevards in Cleweston, Florida


We can see evidence of those 85-year old trees in the form of royal palms that line many of the towns' boulevards to this day. Several of Clewiston's city parks have magnificent banyan and floss silk trees that must be a legacy of those original 1,800 trees. Royal Palm Avenue is literally breathtaking. Standing at one end of this avenue looking down the tunnel of magnificent royal palms makes one really appreciate the foresight of John Nolen back in 1919.

Hendry County and the City of Clewiston have three primary industries citrus, sugar cane and tourist-bass fisherman. The area gets 55" of rain annually with most of it coming in the summer months. That is good for both citrus and sugar cane. The Southern Gardens Company whose plants we are visiting has more than 32,000 acres of citrus under cultivation said another way they have 15-million fruit producing citrus trees in Hendry County alone. Virtually all of these trees are either Valencia or Hamlin oranges that are used in the juice industry.

We toured one of the newest and largest citrus processing plants in the United States. This plant is producing 600,000 gallons of orange juice per-day. Swallow and comprehend that production number---600,000 gallons of orange juice per-day out of this one plant. The plant runs 23-hours a day 7-days a week. One hour per-day is down time sterilizing equipment (something that is required in the food processing industry). The plant had 50 storage tanks that hold one-million gallons each. Yes, I said that right--------the storage tanks at this processing plant can hold 50-million gallons of fresh orange juice.

Of the oranges being processed at this plant 1/3 come from the company's own 32,000 acres of orange trees, another 1/3 is supplied under contract from other growers and the last 1/3 is purchased on the spot market.

Huge 18-wheel tractor trailer trucks loaded with 100,000 oranges each, fresh from the grove, are lined in queue delivering them to the plant. These trucks are not in a queue long before they are hoisted to a 45-degree angle on a huge hydraulic lift---truck trailer and all. The back door of the trailer is opened and 100,000 oranges exit into a washing vat and conveyer belt. Large conveyer belts deliver the oranges to a gigantic storage area capable of holding 3.6 million oranges.

Oranges being unloaded at Orange Juice Processing Plant east of Ft Myers

Note that there are two of these big trucks being hoisted into the unloading position.

On a first in first out basis those oranges are moved via conveyer belt to the extraction process where juice is being "extracted" from 25,000 oranges per-minute. This juice is quickly heated to kill bacteria in a "pasteurizing" process then just as quickly chilled to 32-degrees and pumped to one of those one-million gallon holding tanks where liquid nitrogen is pumped in on top of the juice-so that the juice does not come in contact with oxygen. Juice, in these tanks, maintained at 32-degrees, and sealed with liquid nitrogen, will stay fresh in excess of 5-years. Of course the juice in these storage tanks is rapidly turned over so they do not come close to checking the 5-year-theory.

This plant does not package any juice. What they do is extract the juice and store it. Tanker trucks holding 6,500 gallons each transport the juice to packaging plants. Like tanker trucks delivering milk these juice tankers are super insulated. The juice enters the tanker truck at 32-degrees and it remains at 32-degrees until delivery at the packaging plant.

During the extraction/squeezing process juice is chemically analyzed. The chemical analysis determines which one of the million-gallon tanks this particular juice will be delivered to. Remember that this plant does not package and market any orange juice. They sell the extracted juice to the packagers/distributors that put the product on your grocer's shelf. There is a good chance that the orange juice on your grocer's shelf contains juice produced in this plant.

Packagers & distributors produce a juice under their brand name. In order to keep the taste uniform they mix different juices together to make their brand distinctive. One brand, for instance, adds tangerine juice to their mix. Since there are only two juice oranges Hamlin & Valencia combinations of these juices make up 90% of the orange juice you drink.

In addition to "fresh juice" this plant also produces juice concentrate. To produce "concentrate" from fresh juice 85% of the water has to be removed from the fresh juice. This additional processing takes place in one corner of the plant. Only 5% of this plants capacity is utilized in the production of concentrate, however, the evaporators are removing 25,000 gallons of water per-hour. I don't know about you but removing 25,000 gallons of water per-hour from fresh orange juice is an incredibly huge operation. Even though that is the way this information was presented the 25,000 gallons of evaporate can not be coming from fresh orange juice alone. The evaporate has to include that coming from the cattle feed product where they are drying peelings & pulp. That would make the 25,000 gallons of evaporate water per-hour a number that would fit with the other production numbers.

The concentrate is blended to meet customer specifications then chilled to less than 20-degrees and transferred to tank farm storage. In the concentrate tank farm, five million gallons of concentrated orange juice are stored in 200,000-gallon bulk tanks. In addition, the tank farm can store cooled pressed oil and essence.

The more I thought about the gigantic numbers being thrown at me the more I began to think. This was a BIG operation. If the plant was "juicing" 23 hours a day 7 days a week and they juiced 25,000 oranges per-minute, and each truck delivering oranges held 100,000 oranges and each tanker truck hauling away extracted juice held 6,500 gallons it would take:

Four minutes for the plant to juice the 100,000 oranges on one of the trucks delivering fresh oranges to the plant. For the plant to operate as advertised one 18-wheeler full of fresh oranges has to unload every 4-minutes 23-hours per-day. That was certainly possible since there were 4 or more of those hydraulic lifts they put the 18-wheelers rigs on to unload them. It took less than 4-minutes to unload one of those 18-wheelers. Additionally, during the day many trucks were delivering trailer loads of oranges that were not going into the unloading queue. Those drivers dropped off their full trailers and departed with empty trailers. The plant was saving those full-trailers for the night shift to empty and process.

During a 23 hour shift: 23hrs * 60min in an hour = 1,380 minutes in a 23 hr day divided by 4 (representing a truck load every 4-minutes) = 345 truck loads of fresh oranges delivered to the plant each day.

Now let's see what it takes to transport the processed juice away from the plant:
The plant produces 600,000 gallons of juice daily divided by 6,500 gallons (the capacity of each tanker truck) = 92 tank trucks to haul off just the juice.

If you are getting the idea that there is a LOT of 18-wheeler activity you would be correct.

What I have not discussed yet is the other products resulting from the fresh oranges. Orange oil is extracted from the skin of oranges before they are juiced. Orange oil is used in any number of products especially cleaning products.

Orange pealing and pulp are dried and processed into pellets that become cattle food. Essentially everything remaining after the juice is extracted; essences, oils and pulp wash are recovered, and transferred by conveyor to the feed mill. This product is pressed and heated to remove moisture in a large dryer. Waste heat from the dryer is used to evaporate the liquid removed in the presses. In this process Di'Limonene, a valuable, natural solvent, is recovered. Then Citrus molasses is added to the dried pulp and peel to make cattle feed. Most of the pelletized "citrus peal & pulp" cattle food from this plant is exported to Europe. Since cattle love citrus any citrus not measuring up to "food-grade" standards is dumped into cattle fields for free or next to free in the citrus producing areas of Florida. There is so much of that type of citrus available that there just isn't much local market for the processed citrus pellets. However, when we visited the dairy farm a few weeks ago citrus pellets of this type were part of the dairy cow's daily diet.

How many trucks does it take to deliver these citrus pellets to shipping docks? I don't have a clue based on any information provided by our docent. However, the volume of pealing and pulp has to be has to be on the order of juice being produced, and we already know what that is.

New state-of-the-art citrus groves being planted and managed by this company use microchips in a spray head located near the base of each tree. In addition sensor chips throughout each field determine how much water is needed and when, in addition to what fertilizer needs to be applied and how much.

Fertilizer is applied in liquid format via the normal watering process. Much ado is made of this process that does not over apply fertilizer and does not over water. They are also proud of the fact that much less water is lost to evaporation. Using this system water is applied to the root system rather than those large "rain-bird" type sprinklers we are all used to seeing in farming areas that spray water over large areas resulting in much loss from evaporation.

The next part of our tour had to do with sugar cane. You may or may not know that sugar cane is a type of grass originating in New Guinea (an island north of Australia). Columbus introduced it to the new world on his second voyage. It was a plant that did well in the Caribbean Islands. Later it was brought to the United States. Some other little known facts about sugar include: Before 1750 sugar cane was the only source for refined sugar. In 1750 a process was developed to extract sugar from the sugar beet. Florida has 450,000 acres of sugar cane under cultivation. Approximately, 40-tons of cane are produced per-acre and that refines out to 10,000 pounds of sugar per acre. Sugar cane is not grown from seed but rather by burying stalks about 6-inches deep in a furrow. Each eye on the stalk produces around 6-stalks of cane. They can harvest three times before the field has to be plowed and replanted. It takes 12 to 15 months for cane to mature and it stands between 10 and 12 feet tall when mature and ready for harvest.

Florida is the nation's largest producer of sugar cane and cane sugar, providing more than 25% of the nation's sugar supply. Florida sugar farmers produce two million tons of raw and refined sugar annually. Sugar cane is grown on 450,000 acres of rich farmland along the southern shores of Lake Okeechobee. This represents nearly 150 sugarcane farming operations producing 20-million tons of cane annually processed by six raw sugar mills and two sugar refineries.

Our tour bus headed into the cane fields where we watched as workers burned the fields then harvested the sugar cane from those freshly burned fields. We have witnessed sugar cane harvesting in Louisiana but it was different in a number of ways.

Joyce and mature sugar cane




In Florida, they first burn the fields to remove excess leaves and vermin. Sugar cane is mostly water so it does not burn nor does the green leaves. Vermin are eliminated in this way and not transported to the mill or other fields. The fire is a fast moving fire and not very hot. It does kill things like grasshoppers, ants, wasps and a few snakes and mice that do not make it into a hole. An incredible assemblage of birds is attracted to these fields. Since harvesting is taking place immediately after the burning (within minutes or at most an hour) birds are scrambling behind harvesters in those burned fields. We were totally amazed at the incredible number of birds (buzzards, hawks, egrets, crows, ibis and herons just to name a few) feasting in the field. I suppose the plume of smoke from the burning field was a dinner bell signaling an avian smorgasbord.

Joyce standing next to a field of cane ready to harvest. Note how green it is. The fire does not burn much if any of the green.

In Louisiana large 18-wheeler type trucks deliver sugar cane to mills. Not here. The sugar cane being processed in the Clewiston Mill & Refinery is grown by United States Sugar Corporation. They have 196,000 acres of sugar cane under cultivation around the Clewiston plant. Setting this Company apart from Louisiana farmers is the internal transportation system consisting of a railroad with over 120 miles of track and 1100 railcars linking the sugarcane fields with the mills. This company owns over 120 miles of rail lines through their sugar cane fields.


Tractors with loads of sugar cane dumping the raw cane into waiting rail cars near Lake Okeechobee

Big tractors transport the harvested cane from each field to the rail cars nearby. Tractors drive their load up a loading ramp parallel to empty rail cars and hydraulically dump their load of cane into the open top rail cars. This is super efficient taking less than a minute for each tractor operator to deposit his load of harvested cane into the rail car. Wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am and the tractor driver is on his way back to the adjacent field for another load. The RR track is situated through the middle of sugar cane fields so that tractors only have to haul harvested cane a short distance for loading in railcars. Compared to sugar cane delivery methods we have watched in Louisiana this method is magnitudes more efficient. In Louisiana truck drivers may drive 20 or more miles delivering harvested cane to a mill then patiently wait for hours in a queue waiting to unload their truck. In this super efficient operation freshly harvested cane is transported only a few hundred feet from the field to the rail cars. These tractor operators have unloaded their cane into the awaiting railroad cars and are heading back for another load faster than an 18-wheeler could reach a paved road.

Later on in our plant tour we watched as rail cars were unloaded at the mill. That was another super efficient process to watch. Hydraulically each rail car was dumped into a bin next to the rail car. From where we were standing I could not tell if the wheels were still on the rail car or if the "box" came off a flat bed. The gizmo picked up that box car, containing 40-tons of cane, turned it upside down over the receiving bin shook it a time or two then set it down on the flat bed and wham bam the empty car was gone and another loaded car was moved in place. The process very much resembled the hydraulic arm on a modern garbage truck as it grabs a garbage can then dumps it. Except this thing was grabbing and shaking a loaded rail car. It has to do it quickly because that machine dumps 1,300 of those rail cars every 24-hour day. There are 1440 minutes in a 24-hour day and that thing is dumping 1,300 box cars per-day. That is mighty close to one per-minute not considering any down time for malfunctions or maintenance. I suppose there could be two or three of those unloaders but I could not see them from my vantage point.

The plant we were visiting is the most modern sugar mill and refinery in the United States. Although I did not write down the milling operations capacity they are currently grinding 50,000 tons of sugar cane per-day during the 6-month harvest season. Milling and grinding are synonymous terms referring to squeezing juice from sugar cane. The refinery operation has a capacity of 2,100 tons of refined sugar & molasses per-day. The refinery produces refined sugar and molasses from raw cane juice.

Freshly harvested sugar cane is washed immediately after being unloaded from the RR car. Washed cane is then transported by conveyor belts to large rollers that squeeze juice from the cane. The remaining fiber is called bagasse. This bagasse is transported via conveyor belt to the boiler room where it is used to fuel the boilers. As you might suspect it takes a lot of heat to drive off the excess water in cane juice. However, there is so much of this bagasse that the plant produces its own electric power and even sells the excess power to Florida Power and Light Company.

I have never seen so much sugar in my life. We saw warehouses with sugar piled 30' to 40' high in pyramids resembling saw dust piles at a saw mill. I have never thought about it but as individuals we consume a LOT of refined sugar. Statistically, Americans consume 63-pounds of sugar, per-individual, annually. Much of that is in products like bread, soft drinks, and other food products. In addition to the sugar this refinery produces for human consumption they sell 30-million gallons of molasses annually for cattle food. Apparently, cattle have a sweet tooth very similar to ours. Caribbean nations do something entirely different with their molasses---they make rum out of it. How many of you knew that important piece of information?

The refinery was packaging "food-grade" sugar in a wide variety of packages. Hershey, as in Hershey Candy was receiving sugar in "food-grade" Rail-Road cars that hold 200,000 pounds of sugar each. The next smaller package size I saw was 100-pound bags of sugar then 25-pound, 5-pound and finally 2-pound bags. They were packaging more 100-pound bags than all the other sizes of bags combined. Obviously a lot of food processors purchase sugar by the 100-pound bag. The smaller packages (25#, 5# & 2# bags) represented a wide variety of labels. For those of you that don't know: sugar is sugar no matter the name on the package. There is NO difference. Even confectionary sugar is just regular sugar that has been run through a crusher to crush the crystals.

The last stop on our tour was the "Beneficial Insect Laboratory". This was a big ecological thing. Sugar cane is plagued by a pest called a "sugarcane borer" which is a caterpillar that enters a stalk of cane and starts eating. It is very destructive. This company was spending tons of money spraying to kill the moths and its larvae (the sugar cane borer). They hired a staff of entomologists (all PhD's) to work on finding a non-chemical way to eradicate this serious pest. These entomologists traveled around the world searching for a type of fly or wasp that would parasitize the sugar cane borer (as in lay eggs inside the borer larvae that hatch and eat the borer larvae from the inside out). A small wasp was found on the India, Pakistan border that would do this. The insect they located is very small as in (between the size of a mosquito and a medium size gnat). It only lives three days. In those three days it must mate, locate a sugar cane borer and deposit their eggs in the borer caterpillar. As it turns out these parasitic wasps only fly about 100 feet in their lifetime. With this type of limitation scientists developed a hatchery where they raise borer larvae to feed production of these parasitic wasps. The laboratory raises these wasps then workers deliver them to fields where infestations are detected. Thousands of wasp eggs and just hatched wasps are packaged in small cardboard tubes the size a short shot gun shell. A membrane covers both ends of the cylinder until the cylinder is lobbed into the infected field. As you may expect they have a device to propel these cylinders into the field every 100-feet or so. The introduction of this wasp about 6-years ago has almost eliminated this company's use of chemical pesticides on cane fields. They say that the borer could be completely eliminated but that other sugar cane growers are still trying to control the borer with chemicals. They say that their fields are being reinvested from those adjacent fields.

In addition to their success with the parasitic wasp on the sugarcane borer they have developed similar beneficial insects for controlling citrus black fly and citrus red scale in addition to citrus whitefly. We did not get much information on these beneficial insect controls so I suspect they have not been such a resounding success. Possibly in a few years they will be as happy with those programs as they are with the parasitic wasp and the sugar cane borer.

The company is also using barn owls in a vital role of controlling rats and mice without chemical pesticides. A barn owl family consumes over 1,000 rodents during each nesting period. U.S. Sugar is providing hundreds if not thousands of raised wooden boxes or "owl houses" where these small owls can live protected from predators. In return, the owls drastically reduce rodent and other pest populations.

On the water conservation front they proclaim with great hubris that their citrus processing plant uses the evaporated water from the orange operation. It is recycled, cleaned, treated then used to irrigate surrounding orange groves to the tune of 500,000 gallons of water each day.

I would be remiss if I did not say something on the company's behalf concerning U.S. Sugars other environmental activities. For the past decade or so the sugar cane industry has come under intensive pressure from environmental groups. In response to this pressure the industry is changing practices and has embraced these new practices. The company has implemented a number of BMPs (Best Management Practices) that include: planting cover crops to minimize wind and water soil erosion, removing nutrient-rich farm soil from canals and spreading it back on the fields, using high-tech lasers to level fields thus reducing soil erosion and improve water control, modifying pumping practices to prevent soil sediment from being pumped with the water as it moves off the farms, promoting vegetation to grow along canal banks to trap soil sediments, and minimizing fertilizer application in orange groves by applying needed nutrients directly onto plant roots.

Sugar farmers have also changed water-pumping practices. Releasing smaller amounts of water over a longer period of time prevents soil sediment in the bottom of farm canals from traveling with water being sent to the Everglades. These BMPs have dramatically improved water leaving farm areas. They are proud of the fact that phosphorus in farm water has been reduced by 50%.

Sugar farmers are spending millions of dollars to build six huge filter marshes to clean farm, lake, and urban water headed to the Everglades. They note that the first of these marshes was successfully constructed on U.S. Sugar farmland and is operating twice as effectively as anticipated. Currently farm water that flows into the Everglades is cleaner than Florida rainfall (as related to phosphorus content).

If by chance you would be interested in this tour contact the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce at 863-983-7979 or email clewistonchamber@earthlink.net

As if our day had not been exciting enough we were invited to eat dinner with Linda and Paul at their motorhome located in River Bend Resort three miles down the road. Linda and Paul teamed up to fix a super meal. Paul grilled chicken while Linda handled everything else. They also allowed me to download and upload e-mail for the first time since we left Sun-N-Fun in Sarasota last Monday. Thanks for everything Linda & Paul. By the way boys; be careful when dining with Linda & Paul. Paul washes the dishes. I could tell Joyce was taking this in. Something tells me that if, by chance, Joyce starts cooking I will be under abnormal pressure to wash dishes. I'll let you know.

Mike & Joyce Hendrix

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Mike & Joyce Hendrix

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