About six weeks ago, I helped Eric, a farmer buddy of mine, plant 95 acres of sugar cane. Right after college, Eric worked in the precision ag research department at Auburn, and still has some good friends at the university. When Auburn wanted to put in a sugar cane trial, Eric became the local farmer in charge of making it happen. Since I owed him a favor, Eric drafted me to drive a cane wagon.
Planting sugar cane is much more labor intensive than anything planted (legally) in this part of the country. Planting soybeans, for example, consists of me backing the planter up to the seed tender, starting the conveyor to fill the hoppers with seed, turning on my iPod, and planting until the hoppers are empty. Not exactly difficult. Sugar cane is quite different. You start with a crew of 11 cane planters from south Florida, four tractors pulling cane wagons, a knuckle boom log loader, and several truckloads of cane from Louisiana. (the drivers of which were known by some as "the coon a-- connection.") The wagons are loaded with sticks of cane and three planters who will each toss cane into one row. The stalks of cane are dropped about three wide into a furrow and each joint in the stalk will sprout a new plant. Two more planters walk behind the wagons with machetes to trim twisted stalks and fill in any skips in the row. Walking with a machete isn't terrible--I did that for half a day or so. Tossing cane is a different story. The cane we used was twisted by hurricane Gustav and full of mud and fire ants. Pulling a few stalks off the wagon to fill in skips was as close as I wanted to get to this job.
The purpose of the whole cane experiment is quite interesting. The trial is on the prison farm (several thousand acres just laying idle--I don't have time to go into all of that) which years ago had 800 acres of cane farmed by inmates. The state sold the cane syrup, and the inmates used it to brew bootleg liquor in the toilets. Governor Bob Riley learned that a company called Amyris had developed a way to make synthetic diesel fuel from cane juice that was stable in cold weather and 80% cleaner than conventional diesel. In addition, Amyris is working on a process to make jet fuel. The Air Force wants to have 50% of its fuel from domestic, renewable sources by 2018. Governor Riley would like that fuel to come from Alabama sugar cane. The only problem is that the largest commercial cane patch in Alabama was five acres--not quite enough. The Governor met with Amyris, and the state funded a grant through Auburn to plant 100 acres of cane for seed stock. The idea is that this 100 will provide seed cane for 1,000 acres next year, and 10,000 the following. If the local area can support 50-60 thousand acres of cane, that will be enough to build a cane mill, with the goal of having 150,000 acres in the future. Will it work? Who knows. It did, however, provide me with some very interesting experiences.
I got to learn about the sugar cane industry.
I got to go flying. One of the extension agents from Auburn flew his homebuilt RV8 down to the project. He took me flying. He let me take the stick. He let me do a roll. People with questionable judgment make me happy. Prior to this, I had never been in control of anything more than three feet off the ground--and that was my four-wheeler jumping a dirt pile. Four-wheelers are fun, but they do not compare to flipping an airplane upside down and diving straight at the ground.
And I got to meet the governor. About two weeks ago, Governor Riley came down to tour his pet project, and Dad and I were invited to attend the presentation.