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Farmers wrap up record sugarcane season

The Louisiana Sugarcane Cooperative sugar mill near St. Martinville in operation Wednesday, Jan. 27, within the last few days of grinding.

The 2020-21 Louisiana sugarcane crop is almost complete after four months of grinding, and it appears the crop will set a record.

“We’re going to produce almost 2 million tons of sugar. That’s a record for Louisiana,” said Kenneth Gravois, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist.

By Bruce Schultz, LSU AgCenter

Harvest started in September and continued for almost 125 consecutive days in some areas, with a few days off because of hurricanes. Gravois said the lengthy harvest indicates farmers and mills did well.

“That’s a good problem. That means we had a big crop,” Gravois said.

He noted some delays occurred because of hurricanes and problems with getting imported labor into the U.S.

He said sugar recovery probably will average 232 pounds per ton of cane. But the sugar per acre, 8,350 pounds, is an excellent outcome. “That’s a top three crop for Louisiana.”

Gravois said dry weather set up good conditions for planting, and most of the 2020 planting was complete when Hurricane Laura hit in August.

While hurricanes knocked cane down, the major variety L 01-299 is easier to harvest when lodged, he said.

The state’s 496,300 acres in 2020 will probably exceed 500,000 in 2021, he said, with expansion in the northern and western parts of the cane-growing region. Acreage has decreased in some areas such as Lafayette, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes along with some of the River Parishes, he said, but those reductions have been offset by increases in Rapides, Avoyelles, St. Landry and Vermilion parishes.

Gravois said more than a fifth of this year’s crop was third-year stubble or older, and that’s largely because of the variety L 01-299.

Gravois said all mills have ended their grinding season except the Louisiana Sugarcane Cooperative mill in St. Martinville, which is expected to shut down for the season by week’s end.

Mark Carriere, LSU AgCenter agent in Pointe Coupee and Iberville parishes, said farmers were pleased in his area after they finished harvest in early January, and they were grateful the crop didn’t encounter any early freezes.

“It’s not a record-breaking year for them but it’s right up there,” Carriere said.

He said the Alma Mill reported almost 36 tons of cane per acre that produced more than 250 pounds of sugar per ton of cane, with 9,018 pounds of sugar per acre.

He said fields were dry until the last part of the harvest, meaning minimal rutting occurred. “That will help for next year’s yield.”

Planting went well, he said, and farmers finished on schedule. Billet planting is on the increase, he said.

Pointe Coupee Parish led the state in 2020 with 66,650 acres of cane, and Carriere expects that number to increase.

“We’ll have to see what happens with soybean prices,” he said.

Stuart Gauthier, LSU AgCenter agent in St. Martin Parish, said farmers in the area are pleased with results from 2020.

“For a lot of our farmers, it will be one of the better years,” Gauthier said.

He said tonnage in the St. Martin Parish area probably averaged 34 to 36 tons per acre, and the average yield is around 220 pounds of sugar per ton of cane.

Gauthier said the LASUCA mill is expanding, and that will probably result in a shorter grinding season next year. “From a few years ago, they have almost doubled capacity.”

Gauthier said weather, with the exception of tropical systems, cooperated.

“We were fortunate, considering everything we went through this year,” he said. “It’s been pretty unremarkable in terms of freezing.”

Blair Hebert, LSU AgCenter agent in Iberia Parish, said this crop surpassed the 2019 crop. There were losses in areas along the coast from storm damage, he said, but most farmers are pleased with their outcome.

“We had respectable sugar and tonnage,” Hebert said, adding that he was surprised by the results after the crop went through several storms. “This crop has certainly surpassed the yields that I thought it would make after the tropical weather.”

But he said he’s sure the result would have been better if not for the hurricanes.

Hebert said the long grinding season has been a challenge for the industry.

“One hundred and twenty days of wear and tear on you is physically and emotionally difficult. You cannot say enough about the resilience of our local sugarcane farmers,” Hebert said.

Al Orgeron, LSU AgCenter sugarcane pest specialist, said the crop in the River Parishes and in the Houma-Thibodaux area did well. He said one farmer told him the yield on one field increased by 15 tons per acre compared to 2019.

Orgeron said the hurricanes had minimal impact on the area’s crop, and only caused a few days’ delay.

“Grinding went on without a hitch,” Orgeron said. “All in all, I think the season is one for the record book. Not a record crop, but really a top three crop.”

He said planting was accomplished within 20 to 25 days. “This is probably the quickest planting some of these guys ever had.”

Sugar mill behind a field of sugarcane.

The Louisiana Sugarcane Cooperative sugar mill near St. Martinville in operation Wednesday, Jan. 27, within the last few days of grinding. Photo by Bruce Schultz/LSU AgCenter

Sugar harvest.

A sugarcane harvester at work in a field near Catahoula during the last few days of harvest in St. Martin Parish. LSU AgCenter sugarcane experts are saying that this year’s crop has been one of the best, especially considering the weather challenges encountered in 2020. Photo by Bruce Schultz/LSU AgCenter

1/27/2021 9:09:24 PM
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