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Living on a prayer

Louisiana sugarcane harvest 2020, Lacour Farm, Pointe Coupee

There’s a funny saying about Louisiana weather: if you don’t like it, stick around, it’ll change in an hour or two. You could be wearing Bermuda shorts Friday night at a football game and then bundle up in insulated camouflage for your Sunday morning duck hunt.

by Jim Simon
American Sugar Cane League

Sugarcane harvesting weather is also very changeable. A single season often runs an entire gamut of extremes: hot, dry, wet, nasty, muddy, sleeting, snowing, freezing and windy, then throw in a full-fledged hurricane. Sometimes we have all the above in the same month.

The 2016 harvest was a record year and will be the standard by which future harvests will be measured for the foreseeable future. Despite the great yield (246 pounds of sugar per ton of cane), the tonnage was light. The 2017 crop, also a record setter, produced 1.8 million tons of raw sugar. Most of the success of those harvests had to do with weather. It would be great if sugarcane were harvested in the late summer or early fall, but the harvest runs from October into January when wintery weather starts to roll in. In 2016, the conditions were good and dry through the first week of December, but as winter nears, even the most optimistic sugarcane farmer expects the weather to turn nasty. However, the weather conditions thrown at the sugarcane industry in 2018 can be described with one word: quagmire.

The 2018 harvest set a record for tonnage harvested but a higher percentage than normal was weight from mud and wet cane leaves. It was wet during optimum planting season and some farmers ended up trying to harvest and plant at the same time as late as November. The dreary conditions continued as 39 days of the 100-day harvest were marked with significant rainfall. The rain meant farmers spent extra dollars keeping the roads clear of mud and towing bogged harvesters through the rows just to cut cane. It was so muddy, about 1,500 acres were abandoned.

Even when it was over, the 2018 harvest wasn’t done with the next crop. The fields, hungover from the extreme harvest, suffered through a wet and cool spring, dry summer and the July arrival of Hurricane Barry. To make matters worse, an early November freeze reduced the yield.

As of the time of this December 7 writing, we are in the harvest home stretch and it’s been largely positive. More than 70 percent of the crop has been delivered to the mill. Yield has been right at the five-year average and well above our 15-year average. Even though Louisiana was threatened and hit by more than its fair share of hurricanes which delayed the harvest, the weather has been good. But with more than a month of crop left out in the fields, there is plenty of time for the weather to play an adverse role in the outcome.

Wishing, praying and hoping, these are the things the sugarcane farmer and miller are doing as December rolls around. When it’s all said and done, the only thing at this point we can say about the harvest is it was different from last year.

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