Depending on the variety of sugarcane, climate and sowing time, it can take anywhere from 9-24 months for the cane to be ready for harvest. Sugarcane is harvested both by hand and mechanically, although hand harvesting accounts for more than half of global production. Hand harvesting cane is truly backbreaking work, often done in the blazing sun, using cane knives or machetes. It is important for the rum industry as a whole to work towards better working conditions among these workers. Organisations like Fairtrade and Bonsucro are making huge steps towards achieving safe and sustainable standards, but the system is far from perfect and much work is yet to be done.
A traditional practice has been to burn the cane fields before harvest in order to burn up dry leaves, and chase away venomous snakes, insects and rats, without harming the roots or stalks of the cane. Although this can help make harvesting safer and more efficient, it is a practice that is rapidly waning due to environmental & public health concerns. When “cutting green” the leaves are stripped from the stalk and often left in the field as mulch.
Mechanical harvesting is more common among large scale sugarcane producers, and requires a flat and easily accessible topography. The cane is cut close to the ground and begins to lose its sugar content almost immediately so a race against time has started and the can must be processed as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours.
After each harvest the cane sends up new stalks, called ratoons and regrowth begins, albeit with decreasing yields. After 2-3 additional harvests the cane is typically replanted although some smaller producers allow for regrowth of up to 10 years.
Once the cane is harvested we move on to processing, but that’s a story for another day…