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2017 sugarcane harvest off to a dry start

Travis MedineTravis Medine has been farming sugarcane for 14 years in Port Allen, Louisiana, outside of Baton Rouge.

PHOTO: Travis Medine directs a tractor driver during the 2015 planting season. Photo by ASCL-SamIrwin.

Harvest time is always an adventure with Louisiana's wet weather and often muddy soil. Four inches of rain in a single event during the harvest period is not uncommon and rainfall could easily exceed 10 inches before the end of harvest around Christmas time. Getting trucks and combines mired in the muddy fields is also not uncommon.

"If you meet a farmer around here who tells you he hasn't gotten something stuck, he hasn't been farming very long," Medine says.

Muddy sugarcane harvest

This year's harvest season, which started in late September, has been dry so far and Medine has received good feedback from the mill about the quality of the sugar coming in.

PHOTO: Wet, late fall weather can turn a Louisiana sugarcane harvest into a muddy mess. Photo by ASCL-Sam Irwin.

"We're looking forward to a good crop. Not a record-breaking crop but a good one," he says.

Medine, like other farmers in Louisiana, cuts sugarcane with harvesters equipped with tank-like tracks, then loads the cane into trucks that take it to sugar mills for processing.

The mill processes the cane into raw sugar and then it goes to a refinery where it is made into food-grade sugar products that are sold to food processors and grocery stores.

Medine farms with his two brothers, Trent and Tracy, and his father, Brian. Through the years, they have seen many changes. New equipment to enhance efficiency. New sugar varieties to better withstand Louisiana's unforgiving climate. And new economic pressures.

"Farming has gotten a lot more expensive," he says. "But sugar prices haven't kept pace."

In fact, food makers pay about the same for sugar today as they did when President Jimmy Carter was in office.

Medine says bad actors abroad are a big part of low prices. Mexico, for example, broke U.S. trade laws and dumped subsidized sugar on the U.S. market in 2013 and 2014. The result was a $2 billion loss for U.S. farmers like Medine.

The Trump Administration finally reached a deal with Mexico in June to bring its industry back into compliance with U.S. trade law. But a lot of damage was done.

Medine BrothersAnd Medine worries that farm policy critics are lobbying against the strong farm policies needed to preserve the jobs and production that Mexico jeopardized.

"It really bothers me when sugar farmers get attacked by lobbyists for big candy companies and extreme think tanks," he says. "It's amazing how jaded people can be. We have a good, low-cost product that's grown right here in America and supports thousands of good-paying jobs. Why would anyone want to outsource that production by dismantling our farm policy?"

Medine hopes lawmakers remember Louisiana's long, proud sugar history as they debate the 2018 Farm Bill. He's the fifth generation in the family to farm sugar cane.

"Here in Louisiana, it's been more than 200 years we've been harvesting cane," he says. "The sugar industry, while it has suffered in the past, it's been able to keep a lot of local businesses afloat due to the fact that we have that good program. I have two boys at home and third on the way. I would sure hope to see them be the sixth generation out here."

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