Cautious optimism marks start of soggy sugarcane harvest
According to statistics from the American Sugar Cane League in Thibodaux, approximately 463,000 acres of cane were harvested by 417 farms in Louisiana in 2020. With an average of 8,568 pounds of sugar produced per acre, 2020 was a stellar year for the industry.
This year’s crop, by contrast, endured a damp, challenging growing season. Now, harvest is getting off to a soggy start.
LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Kenneth Gravois said rainy weather leading up to this year’s 90-day harvest has slowed down many aspects of farmers’ and millers’ operations.
By Derek Albert, LSU AgCenter
“When you’re in muddy fields, it’s just a more expensive crop to harvest,” Gravois said. “You’re burning more diesel. It’s harder to clean the cane. It’s just not good for anybody.”
The cloudy, wet spring and early summer that farmers experienced during the prime sugarcane-growing season may have led to lower stalk density across the sugar belt. This translates to lower tonnage yields as the harvest reaches the scales at the state’s 11 sugar factories.
“When you have all the rainfall that we’ve had this year, you just normally expect to have a low tonnage crop,” Gravois said. “But as we start getting into better cane, tonnage is going to pick up.”
About 60% of this year’s crop consists of the sugarcane variety L 01-299, which was commercially released in 2009, Gravois said. In commercial production since its release, the variety has provided the industry with good tonnage and sucrose yields with the added benefit of displaying strong stands of ratoon crops.
Gravois noted that despite the slow start to the harvest, drier weather and further progress into the season should elevate sugar recovery figures.
“Even though the tonnage may be off, we can still make money on this crop,” Gravois said. “If our sugar recoveries can improve, like we are starting to see — and if it’s dry and we get this crop out cheap — it bodes well for this year. And it’s a good start to next year’s crop.”
Sugarcane is grown in 24 parishes throughout southern and central Louisiana. Different areas of the state’s sugar belt have experienced various challenges during 2021.
AgCenter agent Renee Castro has monitored the sugarcane crop in the region most heavily battered by Hurricane Ida: the River Parishes of St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Charles Ascension, Assumption, and south to Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. There, Ida’s winds lodged about a quarter of Louisiana’s sugarcane crop, but cooperative growing conditions have helped straighten the tangled stalks, Castro said.
According to AgCenter data, about 139,000 acres of cane are expected to have somewhat lower sugar yields because of the storm.
“I think they’ll still be able to get in there and do what they need to do, but it will be with lesser yields at the mills,” Castro predicted.
Ida’s rains — and persistent precipitation thereafter — delayed some farmers from planting their next crop, which will be harvested in a ratoon cycle for the subsequent three or so years. Gravois said many farmers — especially in the sugar belt’s southeastern parishes — are facing the added challenge of having to perform both operations at the same time.
“A lot of farmers are not where they want to be with planting, and now harvesting has started,” Castro said of growers in her area.
AgCenter agent Mark Carriere said farmers in Pointe Coupee, West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes are optimistic despite the soggy field conditions that add challenges to harvesting and transporting the crop to area sugar mills.
“Other than the rain and the wet weather, things have been going pretty smoothly,” Carriere said. “If they had it their way, we’d be dry from here on out.”
Growers in Carriere’s area were some of the first to start this year’s harvest, with the Alma Plantation Sugar Factory in Lakeland grinding its first stalks Sept. 24. As the season progresses, the AgCenter and the industry’s growers and millers will be able to get a better picture of yield trends for the harvest.
“So far, the sugar recovery has been all over the board,” Carriere said of preliminary figures seen in his area.
Farther south, AgCenter agent Blair Hebert said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the 2021 sugarcane harvest. The soggy weather may have made for a slow start to the season with less-than-ideal field conditions. But in the Acadiana area, the stands of sugarcane look promising.
“On Bayou Teche, I think we have a pretty good crop,” Hebert said. “It’s not the crop of last year, but I think overall we’ve got a good crop.”
Hebert said while it looks like the crop has adequate stalk tonnage yields, the crop’s sugar yields are more uncertain. The cloudy, rainy spring and summer weather that blanketed south Louisiana may have put a potential damper on the crop’s sugar production.
“We had a lot of cloudy days,” Hebert said. “We need a lot more days of dry weather. Those plants need to be able to go through photosynthesis and convert energy into sugar. “
Growers are hoping for dryer, cooler weather patterns to allow the crop to mature and produce higher sugar content, Hebert said.
“We’re hearing a lot of farmers saying their crop has improved tremendously since September,” Hebert said. “This might be one of those years when the crop surprises us because it was late-blooming.”
Farmers with Melancon Farms harvest some of their sugarcane crop in St. Martin Parish on Oct. 10. Farmers across the Louisiana sugar belt are hoping for cooler, drier weather to make for a smooth harvest. Derek Albert/LSU AgCenter