• Raising Cane

    Two hundred years ago, slaves planted sugarcane on Sapelo Island. Clemson researcher Stephen Kresovich has been at the center of a collaborative effort to bring Purple Ribbon sugarcane back to Sapelo as part of an effort to preserve a culture and a community.
    by Jim Melvin

On a crisp, clear morning in late October, the sun rises over a dense field of sugarcane, bathing the towering grass in magical light. All is silent, as if visual beauty of this caliber overwhelms everything else.
But then a convoy of noisy trucks arrives. Doors spring open. People pounce out. And the silence is shattered by a blur of activity.
A moment long envisioned by a multifaceted cast of characters has finally arrived. It is time to chop down the sugarcane. Only, this is no ordinary cane. This is Purple Ribbon, a legend returned to life.

“Strip, top, cut, load. Strip, top, cut, load.”

Clemson University geneticist Stephen Kresovich, the de facto leader of a diverse crew bracing for a hard day’s work, repeats these words as if reciting a mantra. The cane is precious to him — and to the others. It has been grown with loving care — first in a greenhouse at Clemson and then in the loamy soil of an organic farm in Townsend, Georgia.
But these have been just stopping points to its ultimate destination — a place as historic as it is fragile. The Purple Ribbon cane and several other similar varieties will be planted and regrown on Sapelo Island, Georgia, the birthplace of a small community of people who trace their lineage to West Africans torn from their homeland centuries ago. [pullquote]As slaves, they were forced to grow Purple Ribbon cane on Sapelo. More than 200 years later, they will do it again — but this time, on their own terms.[/pullquote]
On this cool Saturday morning, Clemson is represented by Kresovich and Clemson scientists Matt Myers and Kelsey Zielinski. Representing Georgia Coastal Gourmet Farms are Jerome Dixon, Leon Russell and LaMario Dixon. And Sapelo natives Stanley Walker and Joseph Walker are there as well.
Jerome Dixon, especially, is wistful. He has been carefully tending the cane for seven months. On Friday night, he had been unable to sleep, finally rising from his bed well past midnight and wandering his fields beneath a swollen moon. The cane had danced and quivered before him, as if filled with invisible spirits saying one final goodbye.
“It’s almost like the cane has become a member of my family. I’ve watched these babies from the time we put them in the ground,” says Dixon. Dixon co-owns his farm with Dr. William Thomas, a pathologist and philanthropist affectionately known to his friends as Doc Bill. “And the growing process couldn’t have gone more smoothly. About all I had to do was keep them watered and fertilized. And the end result has been impressive. The quality is just phenomenal.”
There are four long rows of 10-foot-tall cane, so there is much work to be done. Myers performs some quick tests on several varieties to determine their sugar content, which turns out to be 15-17 percent, which is extremely high. The heirloom cane doesn’t just have a fancy name. Its quality ranks with the best there is.

Around 9 a.m., the backbreaking part of the job begins, and the field becomes as frenetic as a rock concert.

First, the crew strips leaves off the stalks of the cane. Some of this is done by hand, while the Sapelo workers use a cane knife with impressive dexterity. The edges of the leaves are sharp, slicing bare skin like paper cuts. They also contain tiny particles of a fiberglass-like substance that causes an itchy rash. But the crew is not daunted. Soon, mounds of the long, fibrous leaves are thickly strewn on the ground.
The next step is to “top” the cane, which involves cutting off the upper leaves above the stalks using a variety of chainsaws and knives. Finally, the now-bare stalks — each about 4-6 feet long and resembling colorful bamboo — are cut down as near to the ground as possible.
Since there are 13 varieties, including Purple Ribbon, it is important for the crew to keep things carefully organized. Mixing up the varieties now could discombobulate months of planning. With so many different people doing so many things at once, Kresovich and Zielinski are forced to keep an especially close eye on the goings-on.
A portion of the cane is immediately planted in a new field adjacent to the original one. Using a tractor to move the heavy material, the stalks — arranged by variety — are placed into long furrows in the soil. Before being buried, each stalk is chopped into shorter sections with a cane knife, which will encourage more buds to germinate when the new cane sprouts from joints on the stalks in the spring.
[pullquote]Meanwhile, the rest is bundled — about a dozen stalks each — with tightly wrapped duct tape. The variety associated with each bundle is specifically labeled. This cane belongs to Sapelo.[/pullquote]
By noon Saturday, the work has been completed. A group photo is taken in front of a fancy sign that says “Sapelo Island Purple Ribbon Sugarcane.” There are a lot of smiles and high-fives. All things considered, the operation has gone well.
Then the crew from Sapelo hauls off its portion of the cane in the back of a trailer. Those remaining at the farm wave goodbye. The most difficult part is over.

  • Sapelo Island


Why is this cane so special? The answer requires a look back at the recent — and even distant — past.
In the spring of 2014, the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS) invited food historian David Shields and several cohorts to the island to discuss ways for its people to generate additional income to offset a sudden rise in property taxes that is putting an undue financial strain on many of Sapelo’s residents.

Nestled off the coast of Georgia amid a string of barrier islands, Sapelo is largely pristine and undeveloped. More than 16,000 acres are owned and managed by the state of Georgia. But a private community named Hog Hammock still survives. Many of the inhabitants of this 434-acre tract — which represents about 3 percent of the island’s total size — are direct descendants of West Africans torn from their homeland three centuries ago and forced into slavery in America.

As Hog Hammock’s older residents have passed away and the younger ones have fled to the mainland in search of jobs, the final relatives of those long-ago slaves have dwindled. Around 50 now inhabit the island on a permanent basis. But though their numbers are decreasing, their magical heritage still lingers. The Geechee of Sapelo have retained ethnic traditions that existed in their native country as far back as the mid-1700s. To allow this culture to vanish would be tragic not only for Sapelo but for anyone interested in the preservation of our nation’s tumultuous history.
After the meeting, Shields began to conceive a project that might benefit Sapelo’s remaining indigenous residents. The renowned heirloom sleuth organized a nationwide search to find a variety of sugarcane called Purple Ribbon that was grown on Sapelo more than 200 years ago when a plantation owner named Thomas Spalding used the forced labor of hundreds of slaves to transform a forested island into an agricultural powerhouse. Shields hopes to reintroduce Purple Ribbon to Sapelo, thereby giving rebirth to an industry that might generate enough income to play a significant role in helping the islanders remain in their ancestral home.
“Ultimately, the goal of this project is to establish a productive sugarcane industry on Sapelo for the benefit of its people. Not a big industry, but an industry that’s based on quality,” says Kresovich. “And the intent is to produce an exceptional product that can be used to make alcohol, sugars and syrups. Upscale restaurants in Charleston, Savannah and Atlanta are showing interest, so the market is already there.”

To provide the science necessary to properly identify the heirloom canes, Shields turned to Kresovich, who is Coker Chair and director of Clemson University’s Institute of Translational Genomics. During the summer of 2014, Shields, Kresovich and Charley Richard, a noted cane expert from Louisiana, were joined by Clemson’s Bradley Rauh and Hannah Mosby to sift through all the varieties of sugarcane they could find in public and private collections.

Following acquisition, Kresovich used molecular and agronomic forensic testing to validate the genetic characteristics of Purple Ribbon and other closely related canes. Once the varieties were chosen, they were prepared for the next stages of their journey: first to be planted and grown to maturity at Georgia Coastal Gourmet Farms on the mainland in Townsend, and then to be chopped down and transported to Sapelo Island.
Starting in late 2014, 84 tiny plants representing 13 varieties of heirloom cane were raised and tended over several months in a greenhouse on the Clemson campus. On April 14, 2015, these plants — then about 8 inches tall — were moved to a new home in the sandy soils of Dixon’s organic farm in Townsend.
On Oct. 31, 2015, the cane — now 10 feet tall — was chopped down and distributed between the mainland farm, where it was immediately replanted, and Sapelo, where it would be banked over the winter and replanted on the island in the spring. Eventually all of the cane will be harvested in early fall of 2016.
sapelo6A wide-ranging team of scientists, historians and Sapelo natives worked tirelessly on the project for more than a year and a half. In addition to Shields, Kresovich and Dixon, other key members included Clemson scientists Myers, Zielinski and Alex Cox; Doc Bill, who operates rental properties called Sapelo Island Birdhouses that provide employment for local residents; and Cornelia Walker Bailey, who is Sapelo’s most relentless and charismatic leader.
“Ultimately, the goal of this project is to establish a productive sugarcane industry on Sapelo for the benefit of its people. Not a big industry, but an industry that’s based on quality,” says Kresovich. “And the intent is to produce an exceptional product that can be used to make alcohol, sugars and syrups. Upscale restaurants in Charleston, Savannah and Atlanta are showing interest, so the market is already there.”

  • Bringing Purple Ribbon Home

Later that afternoon, the trip to Sapelo feels almost anticlimactic. The original plan was to use a barge — operated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources — to transport the cane. But at the last minute, the barge becomes unavailable. So the cane is taken over on the island ferry, which makes multiple trips to and from Sapelo each day. As it turns out, this works just fine. The carefully bundled cane fits comfortably in the back area of the ferry and rides over in style.

The ferry ride offers breathtaking views. Everything about this biodiverse coastal region is spectacular. There are sparkling waters swept by warm breezes, salt marshes standing adjacent to oyster reefs, sea birds feasting on schools of fish, and shrimp boats gliding past pristine beaches. The Sapelo Island Lighthouse serves as a comforting beacon. Despite lasting just a half-hour, the trip to the island warms the heart and calms the soul.
Upon arrival, a group of men, women and children gives the cane a festive welcome. Then it is carried — bundle by bundle — off the ferry and loaded onto another trailer.
“Can we eat it?” a young boy says, eyeing the stalks hungrily.
“Not today,” a man answers. “But one day … one day.”
The cane is hauled down a long road that eventually leads to the heart of Hog Hammock. Towering oaks laced with Spanish moss line each side of the road. Spears of light stab through the canopies like streaks of hope.
Surrounding the community of Hog Hammock is a land of delights, including two beautiful beaches that border thousands of acres of forest filled with alligators, feral cattle and song and seabirds.
Now, Sapelo’s latest delight has arrived. Through a combination of rigorous genetics, painstaking varietal research and centuries-old African know-how, Purple Ribbon sugarcane and several similar varieties have been reintroduced to the island, the original birthplace of commercial sugar production in the United States.

It is a time to rejoice.
“The ancestral cane is back where it originated more than 200 years ago,” says Shields, chair of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and an expert on Southern cuisine. “In the spring, it will be uncovered and replanted on the island that made it famous.”

The nearly two-year project has been complicated, time-consuming and, at times, frustrating. It has also presented an interesting dichotomy between 21st-century science and centuries-old ingenuity. For instance, Kresovich, the scientist, decides to plant the cane immediately on the mainland, while Bailey and her stakeholders choose to bank it on Sapelo.
Both techniques have their merits. Certainly, all parties are rooting for each other.


Sunday is a day of worship and rest on Sapelo. But on Monday morning, Bailey’s sons, Stanley Walker and Maurice Bailey, begin the work of banking the cane. They dig several square holes in the rich soil of a large garden that stands adjacent to the SICARS headquarters. Each hole is about three feet deep. They then bank the cane between layers of leaves, straw and sand, before covering it with canvas tarps.
Sapelo sugar cane snov87The two powerful men have a third helper: 2-year-old Aiden Dunwoody. Aiden is Cornelia’s great nephew, and she has nicknamed him “Ninja” because of his mind-boggling ability to avoid injury despite an incessant series of crashes and tumbles. Ninja grabs a shovel and does some digging himself, but he spends most of his time rolling around in the dirt, bringing smiles to the faces of everyone in attendance.
Perhaps when Ninja grows to manhood, he’ll make his living selling sugarcane on Sapelo.
“This cane has been brought here to hopefully provide jobs and income for the young people of Sapelo,” Cornelia Bailey says.

“I’m too old to be cutting cane. But you’re never too old to dream.”

Bailey says the 13 varieties will be planted in several different places on the island, with varying soil and moisture conditions. This way, she’ll be able to see what thrives best where.

“Two hundred years ago, we planted sugarcane here out of necessity. We weren’t given a choice,” Bailey says. “Now we’re going to plant it because we have a choice. And by putting in some sweat and effort, the dividends will come directly back to our community.”

snov66Why is Sapelo’s sugarcane so special?

The heirloom sugarcane that will be grown on Sapelo Island has already drawn significant interest in high culinary circles.

Learn more about Purple Ribbon sugarcane: