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Sugar Technology Goes South

CDAE faculty exports Vermont know-how to help Honduran farmers increase profits, improve the environment

By Jeff Wakefield Article published July 21, 2004

Smoky Shack
As more Honduran farmers adopt environmentally friendly techniques adapted from Vermont maple producers, a Community Development and Applied Economics researcher hopes sights like this one become less common. (Photo: Dan Baker)

Rising unsteadily over a dilapidated shack, the smokestack bleeds a plume of thick, dark smoke into the Honduran countryside.

It’s a disturbing photograph, evoking both hopeless poverty and environmental degradation. But to the man who took it, CDAE lecturer and former Kroepsch-Maurice Teaching Award-winner Dan Baker, it’s a source of inspiration.

For the past four years, Baker has worked tirelessly — during the summer, over holiday breaks, and during a service-learning class he teaches in the country — to persuade a group of 150-odd rural sugarcane farmers in Taulabe and the Comayagua region to break a bad habit: using burning tires as fuel in the sugar-making process.

The smoldering tires, a cheaper source of fuel than scarce firewood, which is also used, create the smoke plume in the photo and constitute a major public health and environmental hazard.

The solution Baker is peddling would seem quixotic if it weren’t finally yielding such positive results: replacing the inefficient flat-pan evaporators favored by the Hondurans, who use them to boil sugar cane juice into a block of dark sugar called panela, with highly efficient, flue-style versions similar to the ones New Englanders have used for 100 years to make maple syrup.

The maple-syrup-style evaporators burn so efficiently that Honduran farmers are able to use the waste from the sugarcane itself — the stalks and leaves, or bagasse — as fuel, saving money and eliminating pollution.

Baker first went to Honduras in the late 1990s with CDAE associate professor Deep Ford to help with a project designed to empower small-scale coffee growers. The sponsor of Baker's trip, the Partners of the Americas’s Farmer to Farmer program, took Baker aside and asked him to investigate the tire-burning problem on cane farms.

Baker, himself a maple syrup producer, saw an opportunity to share the technology he was using back home in his Starksboro, Vt., sugar shack with the Hondurans.

“I thought to myself, ‘Oh, boy, what you guys are doing is bad for your health, it’s bad for the environment, and it’s so inefficient,” Baker says.

Yankee ingenuity
On his next trip to Honduras, Baker brought a flue pan with him and, over the next several visits, built the first prototype evaporator and oven. In its earliest incarnation, the new evaporator lived up to its billing and then some.

“It was boiling too hard,” Baker says, drawing so much heat into the evaporator pan that the scum, or cachaza, mixed into the clean juice, rather than being skimmed off. The resulting sugar was too dark and had an off flavor.

Baker worked for two years to solve the problem, even consulting with engineers, who described the problem as “complicated.”

“Everyone had given up on us, ” Baker says. “Our funders wanted us to go home, write up our report, and move on to the next project. I’m pretty stubborn, though. I don’t give up that easily.”

Baker tried many design modifications, but it was a suggestion from one of the farmers in the Taulabe cooperative that did the trick. “Once we finally got it, the whole project shifted,” Baker says.

Using their own money, about $450 per rig, farmers in the region built 13 of the new evaporator-oven combos. They not only began producing a better product, they also made more profits, as they were eliminating fuel costs.

Other farmers noticed, as did funders. Last September, the Interamerican Bank made $70,000 in low-interest loans available to farmers who wanted to build the evaporators and make other improvements to their operations. In January, Baker received $145,000 from the bank and a small foundation to run a series of training workshops for 200 farmers, many from outside the region. UVM has also contributed to Baker's Honduran efforts, providing nearly $35,000 to date. The workshops, which began in June, have been going well, even though it can be a challenge to connect with the often skeptical farmers, many of whom are illiterate.

Baker’s teaching gifts are on full display in the workshops, which are designed as much to motivate farmers to change their practices as to give them practical advice on how to build and use the new evaporators.

For the economics lesson on day one, for instance, Baker directs a skit, gathering six to eight producers in front of the room. “We have one guy, who’s using an old evaporator, sell his sugar, then pay all the people in his production chain — the guy who cut the cane, the guy with mule, the workers. When he gets home, he’s got one lempiras. Then we go through the same skit with a producer using a new evaporator. When he gets home, he’s got two lempiras. I ask them why, and the guy who sells tires says, ‘I didn’t get paid.’ It goes over really well.”

While it’s still too early to call, the enthusiasm of the workshop trainees and federal agencies like the ministries of agriculture and natural resources, combined with the success of farmers already using the new evaporators, bodes well for the future. “You don’t often get a technology that can do so many good things,” says Baker. “I feel lucky to be involved.”