In the middle of the season, with dry weather becoming a worrisome bug in the back of many growers’ minds, the Glades rattle with activity. In field after field, workers harvest lettuce and sugar cane as tractors pull planters seeding new crops right next to them.
A crew stays busy putting together a different sort of irrigation system in a celery field near Roth Farms’ shop off Gladeview Road outside Belle Glade.
It’s a switch from their usual method of watering crops, says Rick Roth. The 1200-foot lateral system can be moved simply across the field — a 50 hp tractor can pull it to the other half of the field once the first half is irrigated.
“Once it’s in place, it’s supposed to be easy to move,” he says. “That’s what we’re hoping. We’re not going to decouple the pipes; we’ll just leave it hooked up. It’s supposed to save labor. I’ve seen it in other places but this is my first year doing it.”
Roger Theberge, who works for Farm-Rite, Inc., at Calverton, N.Y., on Long Island, came down to install the irrigation system, which is made by CerainTeed Pipe.
“With this system, a worker doesn’t have to drive through the field with a tractor and a pipe trailer,” he says. “One man on a tractor can move it. Normally, it takes three or four men to move a conventional system across a field. That’s the main feature of this one: it can be moved in 10 minutes.”
The pipe itself was developed for gold mining by CertainTeed, then adapted to agriculture. Its positive seal joints mean there will be no leakage or drainage once it is in place, Theberge says.
“As it pencils out, the material is a little more expensive than conventional aluminum irrigation pipe, but the labor savings quickly outweigh the material cost. And tractors can drive right over this pipe without damaging it.
“There are couplers every 40 feet. They’re called sled couplers because they keep the system upright and prevent it from rolling on its side.”
Trying the system on celery made sense to Roth.
“Celery is a very wet crop,”he says. “It likes water. Being a transplanted crop, it has higher water demand — we have to really pay attention to watering it.”
In dry years, everyone around here thinks about water. Right now, they’re hoping this year’s drought is not as bad as the one in 2011.
“We are in a holding pattern,” says Ron Rice, University of Florida Extension agent working in the Glades. “It’s still dry here. We got some nice rainfall recently, which gave us some temporary relief. There’s still some good moisture in the topsoil, which is important for leaf crops.
“But if the water level in Lake Okeechobee drops significantly, there’s a possibility that irrigation restrictions could kick in, and that would hurt our crops. Last year, we were restricted to 45 percent of our allocation, which meant we couldn’t water everything.
“We’re not in that position now, and probably won’t be later on — at least that’s what we’re hoping. If we get even half of a normal rainy season, we’ll be better off than last year,” Rice says.
So-called normal seasonsrarely occur, as far as Rick Roth is concerned. “We’re always making comparisons to historical trends,” he says. “For the last five years, we had unusually cold winters and record-breaking cold. We’ve already had two fronts this year that were relatively cold.
“Our crops this year suffered some because they needed rain. Dry weather hurts our leafy crops a little more than the others. Rainfall also impacts fertilizer uptake; in dry weather, there isn’t as much uptake, which hurts the crop.”
Sugar cane this year has done reasonably well, even though an early January cold spell set the crop back somewhat.
“Tonnage and sucroseare both up from last year,” Roth says. “That’s good for all of us here. Of course, last year was not a very good one for cane.”
Rice says the January freeze did hurt the sugar cane crop.
“A freeze has a temporary effect of increasing sugar content, but it’s only good for a couple of weeks, maximum. When the tip is frozen, sugar degrades into other molecular compounds not recoverable at the mill. That means after a freeze growers have to get the cane to the mill as quickly as possible, before it can degrade.”
Three freezes in December, 2010 reduced last season’s sugar cane crop about 20 percent, according to figures released by the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. Sugar yield for the co-op’s 46 growers dropped to 10.72 percent last year, a point less than the year before. They blame the decrease on the freeze.
Growers raced to the mill with last year’s freeze-damaged crop. The frigid weather cut harvest to 114 days, the second shortest in the co-op’s 49-year history, topped only by the 1970-71 season.
“Once the terminal bud freezes, it becomes a race against the clock to get the sugar cane from the field to the processing facility because the cane deteriorates over time,” says George Wedgworth, former president and CEO of the co-op.
So far, this year’s cane crop has sidestepped that situation. As always, Glades growers keep an eye out for fronts moving south from the Arctic regions.
“You just never know what’ll happen. Sure, it’s nerve-wracking. But that’s just part of farming in the Glades. It’s part of life,” Roth says.