The sugarcane fields of central Florida are home to more than just high-quality sugar.

The tall stalks provide a habitat to countless creatures that call the region home. Birds, reptiles, and small mammals all live in the farm fields, sharing their habitat with humans that raise cane.

It’s been like this since sugarcane was commercially cultivated in the region nearly a century ago.

And farmers in the area, by nature, love the environment and the animals it sustains. The soil, sun and rain in Florida bring to life the crops they raise. Protecting that environment has become more important to the sugarcane industry as the crop has flourished in Florida.

But some of the critters that live among the stalks can cause problems for sustainable and efficient cane harvesting. Rats and mice chew on the stalks at all stages of growth, often damaging a significant percentage of the crop.

They can also spread disease and cause headaches for surrounding areas.

That means farmers had to spend time and energy working to protect their crops and communities from the pests. In the past, they’ve used the same methods you might use at home to rid your property of rodents. But those methods were expensive and, in some cases, inefficient. Chemicals used to combat rodents required multiple applications and would dissolve and become ineffective with rain.

Enter the barn owl – and a widespread local sustainable farming practice that got its start from a humble high school science fair project back in 1994.

As that project noted, barn owls native to the Florida sugar area love to nest in tight spaces, like the rafters and eves of barns. They also eat mice – by the thousands. And the fact that a pair of owls were shown to eat as many as 5,000 rodents in a year was music to the sugar industry’s ears.

Dr. Richard Raid, of the University of Florida, took that science fair project and expanded it to what has become a great method for controlling rodents in cane fields. His work even won him a special achievement award from the World Owl Hall of Fame this year.

Since Dr. Raid expanded upon the local science project, thousands of local students have built barn owl boxes and installed them in sugarcane fields.

The first-generation wooden boxes have been replaced with plastic boxes because bees also found them to be a good home. The bees disturbed the owls and presented a danger for field workers. The bees don’t seem to like the plastic boxes, but the owls do.

Florida Crystals Corporation and the independent growers that deliver cane to its mills are big believers in the project, using plastic barn owl boxes in most of their fields.

“We basically upgraded from wooden bird houses to plastic condos,” says Marianne L. Martinez, the company’s vice president of corporate communications.

Moramay Naranjo, senior research scientist, is over the project at Florida Crystals.

The company has 126 boxes and 92 of those currently contain nesting owls. Naranjo is measuring the ability of the owls to control rodents and has plans to expand.

Naranjo says using the owls is a win-win for farmers and the environment.

“I’m so excited,” she says. “I am helping that beautiful family of owls. They have a very cute and unique face. I feel so proud because we are helping everything – the ecosystem, the environment and at the same time we are cleaning or farms.”

And that is what sustainability is all about.