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.