I and 22 other women from Carefree went to Clewiston to go on a 4 1/2 hour tour of the sweetest town in the U.S. where the United States Sugar Corporation grows and processes sugar cane and makes orange juice. We met at the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce, saw their museum and a short film, and then were driven by bus to the fields and refineries. We also had a buffet lunch at the Clewiston Inn and got a tour of part of the city to see where the founders lived and see the levee that separates the town from Lake Okeechobee.
Sugar cane is an annual, so has to be replanted in the fertile ground around the 2nd largest lake wholly inside the U.S. It takes 12-15 months to grow the 10-15 feet it takes for it to be ready to harvest. They till the soil between the rows until the cane is tall enough to form a canopy and thus there are very few weeds. We visited a plot that is ready to be harvested and Bobby, our guide and driver, cut a few canes down so that we could all have a piece to take with us and then he cut into a couple of those pieces so we could chew on them and taste the sweetness. It did taste good and not too sweet. We spit out the fibrous material, called "bagasse".
When the cane in the fields is ready to be harvested (from October to March, as various plots are planted so that all those acres aren't ready at the same time), the plot is burned because the leaves and tops are not used, just the stalks. A huge machine goes down the rows, cutting the cane into pieces and throwing them into large mesh bins pulled by a tractor while the debris is thrown out the back of the machine. When the bins are full, the tractor takes them to railroad cars and dumps the pieces into them. It takes quite a few bins to fill a car. When 10 cars are filled, a train engine delivers them to the refinery just outside the city of Clewiston. The plot is not immediately replanted with cane; they grow rice or corn in between times!
Since we were out in the fields, we went to the orange refinery and learned how oranges become juice. Some of the land was given over to orange groves to get into that business, and it is good. All of the orange is used, from the obvious juice with various amounts of pulp in it for consumers' desires, to oil used in products with orange in it, to feed for cattle! They have huge storage buildings that keep millions of gallons of juice cold and ready for delivery for an indefinite amount of time! They use nitrogen or something to keep air out of the storage tanks so the juice doesn't spoil. We were told we couldn't take pictures of the refineries once we were inside the facilities, but I couldn't get a clear picture of the complex while we were in the bus on the way to them or going away from them. And the orange refinery is closed on Mondays for deep cleaning, even though they clean things every day.
The buffet lunch at the Inn was adequate in taste, and they keep the dining room cold, but the lounge in the Inn was worth the visit! A painter was contracted soon after the Inn was built in the 1030s to paint a mural of Florida native animals for the lounge. It was done at his place and brought in completed to be put up all in one piece! It is oil on canvas and is worth about a million dollars today. They allowed smoking in the bar back when, and the ceiling is yellower than when new, so the mural must be discolored also. But it is beautiful and in great condition!
After lunch, we had a tour of old Clewiston streets where the founders of the town and corporation lived. We saw how their houses are on little hills that bordered the lake. After devastating hurricanes of 1926 and 1928, the huge levee around the lake was built to protect the towns, so they don't get flooded out anymore.
The sugar processing plant and refinery converts many tons of cane into granulated suger every day on 3 shifts. But when we got there in the early afternoon, not much was going on. We saw where the rail cars come in and the rail is tilted up by machinery so that when the side is opened, the cane can be dumped into the stalls and cut up into small pieces. The canes are pulverized, heated, and lots of other things to take out the water, dump the bigasse, and produce the syrup that will get crystalized and stored until further refining is done. They have warehouses and we drove into one to see the unrefined sugar piled from floor to ceiling, put there with bulldozers! It kind of looks like the brown sugar you could use in restaurants that serve it if you don't want the white refined sugar. I'll pass on that from now on! (just kidding - this isn't food grade stuff yet)
A lot of the processing and refining is machinized, so there aren't a lot of people milling about. The bigasse is burned as fuel to power machines; the steam and water from the cane is used to boil the syrup as needed, so the plant is quite self sufficient. It even has extra power that it sells to the utility company that powers the city! It doesn't use water from Lake Okeechobee and it doesn't pollute the air, but I wonder since I can smell the sugar processing in the air.
This was a very informative and interesting tour, and I would do it again if it was done on a day when the refineries were active and we could see more action!