On April 14, three members of Clemson University assisted Jerome Dixon, left, and his crew plant 88 sugar cane plants on Dixon's organic farm in Townsend, Ga.

Three members of a Clemson University team assist Jerome Dixon, left, and his crew plant 88 sugarcane plants on Dixon’s organic farm in Townsend, Georgia.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

SAPELO ISLAND, Georgia — Clemson University is playing a lead role in a months-long effort to reintroduce an ancient breed of sugarcane to Sapelo Island, where the first successful commercial production of the towering grass took place in the United States.

Nestled off the coast of Georgia among a string of barrier islands, Sapelo has remained anonymous, which is both its blessing and its curse. With isolation comes preservation. But it can also lead to scarcity.

Though 97 percent of Sapelo is owned by the state of Georgia, a private community named Hog Hammock still survives. Many of the inhabitants of this 434-acre tract are blood-related — through direct lineage — to West Africans torn from their homeland three centuries ago and forced into slavery in America.

However, as the older residents have passed away and the younger ones have fled to the mainland in search of jobs, the final remnants of those long-ago slaves have dwindled to near non-existence. 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, who have retained ethnic traditions that existed in West Africa as far back as the mid-1700s, represent a rare link to America’s tumultuous past.

For several months in one of the many greenhouses on Clemson’s campus, geneticist Stephen Kresovich and his assistants grew and tended 88 plants representing 14 labeled varieties of heritage sugarcane. Purple Ribbon, the original variety grown on Sapelo in the early 1800s, might be among them, though it was not certain that it or any of the others were exact matches. However, Kresovich was confident — via scientific evidence, forensic methods and instinctive know-how — that the canes were close enough.

Even better: All the plants were strong, healthy and free of disease and insect infestation.

“We employ best management practices so that the plants are well taken care of,” said Kresovich, Coker Chair of Genetics and director of Clemson’s Institute of Translational Genomics. “So these are good, sturdy plants that are not chlorotic or stressed by drought.”

On April 14, the cane was trucked from Clemson to an organic farm in Townsend, Georgia, which will play a crucial yet temporary role in the plants’ cycle of life. The farm is on the mainland, but it is not far from where a ferry makes multiple launches each day to Sapelo Island. The close proximity is no coincidence, but rather a critical step in a carefully crafted plan. A crew of experts at the farm will tend the sugarcane from the middle of spring until late summer. After growing from half a foot tall to eight to 10 feet or more, it will be transported to Sapelo, its eventual permanent home. Thus, the cane replanted on Sapelo will be of the highest possible quality.

“My grandfather started this farm and he always was generous with his community,” said Jerome Dixon, co-owner of Georgia Coastal Gourmet Farms. “The people of Sapelo needed a little help to get this going, so we’ve provided the land and the labor.”

Others playing significant roles in the project:

  • David Shields of the University of South Carolina, who is an expert on Southern cuisine;
  • William Thomas, known as “Doc Bill,” who is a board member of the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS); and
  • Cornelia Walker Bailey, Sapelo’s historian and storyteller.

In the spring of 2014, SICARS invited Shields and several cohorts, including Brian Ward, a research specialist at Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center in Charleston, to meet on Sapelo Island. The topic of discussion? How can Sapelo’s people generate enough income to pay their bills, which include a sudden rise in property taxes that are virtually unaffordable for many who live on the island?

After the meeting, Shields began an exhaustive search to find the original Purple Ribbon cane, but try as he might, he could not locate it anywhere. He finally came to the conclusion that his only option was for a scientist to genetically identify, validate and re-establish Purple Ribbon from its existing collection.

“I instantly thought of Steve Kresovich,” Shields said. “So I called Steve and described the project. It had a genetic component to it, it had a great story to it and it dealt with creating a product. So he almost immediately said yes.”

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 doggedly sift through all the varieties of heritage sugarcane they could find in public and private collections.

“We didn’t rest until we had collected all sorts of cane,” Shields said. “I wrote to gene banks, herbaria and museums everywhere. I talked to people in the cane syrup network. And between us, we made the connections necessary to form the selection of cane that was planted in Townsend, Georgia. We even bought one strain of Purple Ribbon from a grower on eBay.”

Following acquisition, molecular forensic testing is still under way to validate the genetic characteristics of the Purple Ribbon variety.

“At this point, we’re still not certain that we have the exact match because we haven’t identified a validated reference from a museum,” Kresovich said. “But we’re always on the lookout for new candidates, and if we find the original, it can be added to Sapelo’s current collection of canes.”

The first successful commercial production of sugar cane in the United States took place on Sapelo Island in the early 1800s.

The first successful commercial production of sugarcane in the United States took place on Sapelo Island in the early 1800s.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

Bailey, widely considered the matriarch of Sapelo, is enthusiastic about the sugarcane project and is helping to coordinate it. But she is not yet convinced that enough of her fellow islanders are ready to embrace the sweat and tears it will take to tend and harvest the cane in the years to come.

“My only concern about the whole project is labor,” said Bailey, who along with Doc Bill is also a board member of SICARS. “But I’m trying to bring people back to the island. If this project bears fruit, then we can offer the young people something.”

In early September of this year, up to four tons of top-quality sugarcane, grown to maturity from the original plants, will be cut down at the farm in Townsend and hauled by barge to Sapelo. There, it will be chopped into billets and replanted in a field that once grew a similar kind of cane more than 200 years ago.

“With sugarcane, you’ve got a product that gives you the potential to add value to anything you do,” said Doc Bill. “You have Sapelo sour oranges brought here by the Spanish in the 1600s. Add sugar to that, and you can make marmalade. You can brew orange tea. The sugar allows you to enhance the worth of other products.”