Harvesting sugar cane in the
By Brandy Harrison
SPENCERVILLE When 50-year-old, Russian-made farm equipment breaks down in Cuba, no one calls the mechanic. They call the magician.
“They get their bubble gum out and weld it up,” says Spencerville crop farmer Shawn Carmichael, fresh from a week in Cuba his 12th trip in 20 years to vacation and harvest sugar cane. “I love the island.”
He and his wife, Paula, first went to Cuba on their honeymoon in 1995. “Im maybe a two-day beach guy. Then I get bored and stir-crazy,” says Carmichael.
His sugar cane adventures began when he and his wife rented a moped to explore, stopping to help repair a broken-down harvester on the edge of a sugar cane field.
Carmichael and the Cuban farmer talked with their hands, which eventually landed Carmichael in the harvester and the farmer on the moped, driving down the field side-by-side to test drive each others rides.
“Both of us looking like the cat that swallowed the canary, with the biggest, dumbest grins on our faces,” remembers Carmichael. Paula was left standing at fields edge with six men carrying machetes.
The Carmichaels returned the next two years to spend a couple days of each holiday harvesting sugar cane, but took an eight-year hiatus until their youngest was old enough to travel. Theyve gone every January since, with six children in tow.
Likening it to harvesting corn silage, Carmichael says harvesting the nearly 20-ft. tall perennial takes from mid-December to March. Two sets of rotating hydraulic heads are mounted on the harvester to chop the sugar cane above 10 ft. and at ground level.
At 10 a.m., the restaurant truck they call girlfriend arrives at the edge of the field. “At noon, everybody heads for the girlfriend.”
Each harvester has a 45-gallon drum of water and is followed up and down the field by water tankers because one spark under the hot sun can cause a wildfire.
In communist Cuba, harvesters on state crews earn $30 to $40 a month, with private operators earning more. State workers have little incentive to work hard or well, he says, getting paid whether sugar cane ends up on the ground or in the bin. But farmers are the same everywhere and if its set to rain, theyll still work from sunup to sundown, he says, adding that he can only take the heat for four or five hours.
Theres huge agricultural potential, says Carmichael, but there isnt readily-available seed, machinery, and fertilizer, meaning progress is made in inches, not feet.
Hes seen just about everything.
Stopped at a cantina around 9 a.m. one day theres one about every 10 miles he saw a Cuban climbing into a combine, a beer in each of his front and back pockets and a 26er in his belt. “Its just part of their culture. Hell be back at noon to refuel, and not just the combine,” he says, adding Cubans are very laid back. “When you land there, you have to set your watch back to Cuban time. Nobody is in a hurry.”