As of January 5, Louisiana’s sugarcane producers had processed more than 90 percent of the crop and the harvest was turning out to be exceptional. Tonnage was high and recovered sugar per ton was running just a smidgen below last year’s record sugar recovery. The final numbers weren’t in but the LSU AgCenter and area newspapers reported a possible record-breaking crop was in the making. On the other hand, on New Year’s Eve, arctic weather blew into the state with the potential to kill the remaining 10 percent of the crop that was still in the fields.
By Jim Simon
Manager, American Sugar Cane League
What’s maddening is harvesting and milling operations could have been completed two weeks earlier if the United States agricultural guest worker program worked better. Milling operations would have started sooner in mid-September if qualified sugar boilers from Central American had been cleared for work in the United States in a timely manner.
The job of Louisiana sugar boiler is a highly-skilled, well-paid position, but it doesn’t last long enough to keep a platoon of boilers employed all year long. How important is the sugar boiler? He is the person who monitors the boiling sugarcane juice temperature and determines when the juice batch, valued at tens of thousands of dollars, has crystalized sufficiently and can be separated from the molasses. Some sugar mills produce four million pounds of sugar daily, so the boiler is responsible for cooking millions of dollars’ worth of sugar just right.
Internationally, qualified sugar boilers travel between U.S. and Central American countries constantly as their services are highly coveted. They only work in Louisiana for about a hundred days until they move on to the next sugar producing country’s season.
It’s risky for the sugarcane harvest to go into January because of the greater threat of a killing freeze. In Louisiana’s zone 13, the first frost of the year usually occurs between December 1 and 10 but the odds of even colder temperatures go up as fall ends and winter begins.
The Louisiana sugarcane industry has taken steps over the years to minimize risk by developing cold-resistant cane varieties and harvesting techniques designed to get cold-susceptible varieties out of the field quickly. Harvesters can also be adjusted to cull cane stalks that may have been cold-damaged.
But nothing can protect a farmer and his sugarcane field from the kind of cold weather Louisiana received in 1989 when temperatures stayed below 20 degrees for nearly a week. A good portion of Lake Pontchartrain iced over and folks were ice skating on the LSU lakes. A significant amount of that sugarcane crop was lost.
Due to an arcane federal labor program quota system, Louisiana sugar mills were not able to get the agricultural manpower they needed in September and the 2017 harvest was delayed. Sugarcane farmers also experienced similar issues and scrambled to plant and harvest sugarcane at the same time with late-arriving labor.
The Louisiana sugarcane industry supports the passage of the Agricultural Guestworker Act drafted by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). The bill would scrap the current H-2A temporary ag worker program and replace it with a new program, dubbed H-2C, that would allow farmers and other employers to bring in 410,000 foreign workers for farm jobs, as well as 40,000 foreign workers for meatpacking plants. The bill also calls for regulatory oversight of the agricultural guest-worker program to be shifted to the United States Department of Agriculture instead of the Labor Department. Enforcement duties for guest workers and employers would remain under the Department of Homeland Security.
We’re hopeful that Senator Goodlatte’s measure will be properly debated and adjusted as needed and become law but it’s very clear that Louisiana and the rest of the United States need a better and streamlined approach to employ agricultural guest workers. A better program is needed if Louisiana wants to retain its position in the national and international agricultural market.
Photo caption: A sugar boiler in a Louisiana sugar mill examines a sample of cooked sugar cane juice under magnification to determine if the sugar crystals are optimum. The vast majority of sugar boilers in Louisiana are guest workers from Central America and only work in the United States during the Louisiana harvest. After Louisiana's harvest is complete, the boilers move on to other sugar mill work in Central American countries. Photo credit, Sam Irwin