Knowing when to harvest sugarcane is tricky, said Wewahitchka High School’s former agriculture instructor Eric Bidwell. Cold weather brings out the crop’s sweetness, but freezing temperatures will cause the sap to crystalize.
It’s something his students have been trying to master.
But with freezing weather approaching and the students set to be out of school for the winter holiday, Bidwell said they had finally decided it was time.
So, for the first time since the Ag students planted sugarcane four years ago, the classes began to collect and process their first harvest.
“They planted this a few years ago, a year after the program started, and this is their first year doing the whole thing,” said Bidwell.
In order to turn the sugarcane into syrup, long reeds of the plant were passed through a mill machine, which extracted liquid from the plant and passed it down a chute, where it collected in a large metal bucket.
Then, as the bucket began to fill, the sap was transferred to a large kettle, which Kody Bidwell, Eric Bidwell’s son, who recently took over the program, said would eventually hold about 80 gallons of liquid.
“But it’ll only yield about 10 percent. It’ll take us all day to boil down that 80 gallons into about 8 gallons of useable syrup,” he said.
This harvest will not be enough to produce much surplus syrup, once the students have been allowed to take their shares home, Kody said. But in future years, the teacher hopes it might provide a source of income, which could be used to keep the class going.
“The way that sugarcane works is it grows from nodules, and if you cut at a nodule and replant it, it’ll grow back,” Kody said. “It’s completely renewable. We can expand our plot every year”
“The ultimate goal, for us, is to get this to a scale where we can do fundraising with it. All of our stuff has been bought by a grant, but our grant is running out, so we’ve got to get pretty creative pretty quick about how we’re going to keep pumping money into the program.”
Sugarcane sales are only one of Kody’s ideas for bringing in more funds after their Triumph grant runs out. In the coming months, the class hopes to start distributing hanging baskets or starting plants in order to bring in additional money.
But for now, the Bidwells said, seeing the students have fun while learning skills is enough.
“The kids are having a good time, and we’re having a good time with them.”