The green tassels of sugar canes were a surprising sight on a May morning in 2021, waving in the wind more than half a century since the crop was grown on a large scale on St. Croix.
More surprising was the man in a straw hat and blue jeans approaching in a golf cart, Robert Apfel, who grew it. A serial banking and securities entrepreneur from Brooklyn, he set out to make sugar cane viable again on 170 fallow acres of this former Mahogany Road plantation, and another 1,000 acres in Aguada, Puerto Rico.
Apfel knew little more about planting than the average houseplant gardener when a rum distillery tour moved him to start a production farm and artisanal rum enterprise, Raising Cane, LLC.
“I had come to the island to check out the economy,” Apfel said during a recent visit to the Raising Cane mothership in Frederiksted. “I owned some of the bonds that were used to finance the Captain Morgan Rum Distillery, and I wanted to see what my investment had financed.”
Touring St. Croix’s distilleries in 2014, Apfel said he saw a tanker truck pull up with a delivery of molasses from Guatemala and wondered, why from there? All of the feed stock for the island’s famous rum brands was imported, he learned. Rum makers over the past 10 years had become the largest per capita consumer of sugar in the world.
“That’s why I came to the V.I.: to reverse what we see when we travel to St. Croix, which is miles and miles of deserted farmland,” Apfel said. “My idea is to offer to the distilleries as much feed stock as they can use in a given year.”
To do that, Raising Cane aims to raise sugarcane on up to 5,000 acres of unused St. Croix land, not by buying it, but by farming it for people who don’t have the time, know-how or tools to do it themselves.
“I’m what’s called a sharecropper,” Apfel said. “Over 70 percent of the food in America is farmed on land owned by someone who doesn’t do the farming. I want to put other people’s land to use and share with them the income from the land.”
The Cruzan and Captain Morgan distilleries alone use $30 to $40 million worth of cane a year in the form of blackstrap molasses. Cut out the transportation cost, he calculated, and local farms can compete with low-cost producers like Guatemala and Brazil.
The case for cane
And so after three careers on Wall Street, at an age when many farmers have retired, Apfel applied himself to agriculture with all the intentionality that a man of intellect and means can bring to bear.
He invited three cane farmers from Louisiana and Costa Rica to spend a week with him driving around St. Croix with shovels and pickaxes, turning up and analyzing the soil.
“The question I put to them was, ‘Can I make a go of sugar cane on this island?’” he said.
Cane seemed ideal for many reasons. Like a potato it regenerates from itself rather than a separate seed. It grows back several times before it must be planted anew. The tops, when lopped off, keep down weeds, and the crushed stalks mulch the soil. Then too, “It’s a remarkably good crop to learn on for a guy from Brooklyn,” Apfel said.
Apfel traveled to the West Indies Central Sugar Cane Breeding Station on Barbados to learn about cane varieties and breeding, and to Puerto Rico, where he asked the government’s permission to harvest 20 acres to seed on St. Croix. Like the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico had socialized its sugar industry in the 20th Century but lost it when the government turned to heavy industry instead.
“When I asked if I could have some containers of seed cane, they said, ‘Why don’t you take the farm as well?’ That’s how I wound up leasing the farm in Puerto Rico” he said.
He went to Belle Grade, Florida, where thousands of farmers gather at an annual auction to buy equipment and compare notes.
“It’s a wonderful experience to be there with people who farm things from Maine to Mexico and every place in between. You learn and ask questions, and, good Americans that they are, they share their knowledge with you,” he said, pointing with pride to an offset disc harrow worth $20,000 that he picked up for $2,500.
The agricultural economics staff of Louisiana State University offered an analytic hub, factoring the production costs of his crop – or any crop a farmer wishes – and projecting its net return. A thousand acres of sugar cane in 2021, for example, could be expected to net $953,480, or $953.48 per acre.
And when COVID eases in India, Apfel hopes to visit the Indian Institute for Sugar Research in Lucknow, where the staff are doing demonstration projects with small farms of less than two acres.
Enter precision agriculture
Since those 2014 rum tours, Raising Cane has invested over $11 million to re-plant sugar cane on leased land in Puerto Rico’s Coloso Valley, and has cleared and planted the Mahogany Road farm with cane varieties from Barbados, Puerto Rico and St. Croix as well as four Canal Point cultivars from Belle Grade.
On this day some 70 acres towered overhead ready for harvest – the farm’s second – while the Mahogany Road back nine appeared ploughed and ready to seed.
As someone who created a widely-used method of bond financing when he was 28, Apfel took naturally to farming’s geek side. Raising Cane uses what’s known as precision agriculture with hydraulic tools and other high tech methods to increase productivity and assure a better wage.
“The person on that tractor over there” – he waved to William Octavian, an employee from Micaud, St. Lucia – “is driving without using his hands. He has mastered the fine art of lining up 14 satellites in orbit and software programs that keep the tractor moving within three eights of an inch up and down and side by side.”
The farms’ 20 full-time staff, about 10 on each island, each earn upwards of $50,000 a year; some much more than that, according to Apfel. Raising Cane gave money to the University of Puerto Rico for a precision agriculture curriculum, and plans a similar program in the great house that’s being restored on the Mahogany Road farm.
“If a school of agriculture isn’t teaching hydraulics, it’s relegating students to farm with their forearms and shoulders,” he said
An artisanal rum
With enough land under cultivation, Raising Cane plans to introduce “rhum agricole” to St Croix: a French distillation method that for an accident of history produced what many consider the finest rums in the world.
While blackstrap molasses, an industrial byproduct of white crystal sugar, serves for most rums, rhum agricole is made directly from cane juice, without cooking it down and extracting sugar first.
Today rum connoisseurs savor agricole rums like fine wines, each with a distinct “terroire” or flavor that comes from the land where it’s made.
Recently the farm made its first batch of experimental high-test molasses based on the ideas of a University of Tennessee researcher named Robert Gottlieb. High-test is molasses is made directly from the juice of the cane; no sugar extraction required.
“I hope one day we’ll see a regrowth of sugar cane agriculture that can beget rum production, where a farmer who grows cane on St, Croix can say, ‘Drink my rum because it’s better than the rum in Jamaica,’” Apfel said.
One land, many points of view
Not everyone shares the Raising Cane vision. Here where sugar and slavery were once entwined, the optics of a sea of cane overlooked by a white owner from the mainland can be a trigger, some locals say.
There were initial objections when the former Prosperity Farm lands were cleared for planting, including some of the mahogany trees; a reminder of the deforestation caused by the large-scale plantations of old.
The ancient mahogany is protected on public lands in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and an earth change permit is required for any undertaking. But Apfel noticed a paragraph in the law allowing special treatment for farmers.
“The law was written when there was mass agriculture on St. Croix, but it had not been used for decades,” he said. “As a result, many people in government were unaware of it, as I was.”
Like everyone who brings a new idea to the islands, Apfel discovered the islands have ideas of their own.
“I used to get mad because I thought everything was aimed at me,” he said. “I once broke down in tears at the Department of Planning and Natural Resources because a farmer was waiting in line to get a permit to clear his land when he didn’t need one. It has been educational for me to come here and calm down and learn to solve problems.”
Help for small landholders
Ernie Charles sat beneath a spreading mahogany tree on his lunch break gazing at the Mahogany Road fields. A Raising Cane employee from southern St. Lucia where most of that island’s crops are grown, Charles doesn’t own land at present. But if he did, he’d like to farm it, he said.
“I would like to see programs that help farmers with 20 or 30 acres who can’t afford the equipment, but want to do the farming themselves,” he said.
So would a USVI Agricultural Task Force that’s been mandated by the Legislature to work with the University of the Virgin Islands on a territory-wide agriculture plan. At a recent town hall, Chinwe Osaze, a retired educator and farmer, suggested agricultural cooperative business models hold the most promise for the USVI, allowing farms to pool resources.
If it can turn back the history that brought about agriculture’s demise on St. Croix and Puerto Rico, it’s all good to Apfel.
“It’s not that we don’t want to make a profit eventually, but I’m willing to prime the pump to make this economically attractive to many people,” he said, “even those with a few acres.”
After planting cane and producing artisanal rum, Apfel said his next hurrah will be green beans, inspired by some Pennsylvania farmers he met with high-tech farms of 5,000 acres.
“I love green beans,” he said. “I love them slathered with butter and salt.”