HBCUs partners with US Sugar to study sugarcane farming in Glades

Florida A&M University (FAMU) is collaborating with Tuskegee University and U.S. Sugar to study the impacts of sugarcane farming in Florida’s Glades region.

This partnership with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) will launch an environmental study to assess farming methods, including sugarcane burning, and to explore more sustainable practices.

“We’re always looking to ensure that agricultural processes are environmentally safe while trying to make them even safer,” Garlen Dale Wesson, FAMU’s interim dean for the College of Agriculture and Food Sciences, told the Tallahassee Democrat.

U.S. Sugar, based in Clewiston, grows sugarcane, citrus, and fresh vegetables, with a primary focus on sugarcane. “We are committed to strengthening partnerships and highlighting our role in our communities and environmental stewardship,” said U.S. Sugar Community Relations Director Brannan Thomas. “This collaboration marks a significant step toward a more comprehensive and inclusive understanding of our rural communities and sustainable agricultural practices.”

This project coincides with Florida’s pre-harvest sugar cane burning season, from October to March, which remains a contentious issue in the Glades region, including South Bay, Belle Glade, and Pahokee. Burning undergrowth like weeds facilitates harvesting but produces smoke that critics say contributes to climate change and harms the health of workers and residents. The burning has been particularly controversial in South Florida, affecting Palm Beach County’s impoverished communities, predominantly communities of colour.

Tuskegee University initially partnered with U.S. Sugar on this project before FAMU joined. “With its long history of promoting environmental stewardship, Tuskegee University is committed to sustainable agricultural practices,” said Olga Bolden-Tiller, Dean of Tuskegee’s College of Agriculture, Environment, and Nutrition Sciences (CAENS). Wesson noted that FAMU joined after discussions with Bolden-Tiller at a recent conference, recognizing FAMU’s similar expertise in agriculture.

U.S. Sugar provided a $100,000 grant, managed by Tuskegee University, to cover travel costs and instrumentation purchases for the project, which could last up to two years. In April, faculty from FAMU and Tuskegee placed air monitors around sugar farms in the Glades to measure particulates in the air before, during, and after burning. This data will help predict the movement of smoke based on weather conditions.

“We’re primarily interested in monitoring the effects on the surrounding communities of concern,” Wesson said. “Many African American or minority communities don’t get these kinds of studies done, so we’re emphasizing support for minority communities.”

The project will also assess the economic and ecological impacts of the agriculture industry in the Glades region. Currently, a FAMU faculty member and three Tuskegee faculty members are working on the initiative, with plans to involve students in the future. The collaboration emphasizes community engagement to integrate local perspectives and address concerns, as noted in a project summary report.


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