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Louisiana Sugarcane: A Resilient Crop

January Harvest The Louisiana sugarcane plant is a remarkable biological organism well suited to Acadiana’s extraordinary climate.

It can be flattened by high wind but its stalks grow skyward after exposure to a few days of sunlight. A hurricane can dump 20 inches of rain, an extraordinary amount of water that would destroy other row crops, but sugarcane endures and can withstand even more. It can even tolerate freeze and still produce a highly marketable raw sugar product.

It’s because of this resiliency that sugarcane has been a successful crop in Louisiana for more than two centuries.

In 2012, Hurricane Isaac, a small storm by Louisiana standards, blew down a lot of cane and dumped gallons of rain on the fields. After the storm, thanks to 60-straight days of near-perfect harvesting conditions, state farmers produced the best cane crop ever.

During 2013’s Thanksgiving week (November 28-30), freezing temperatures hit the Cane Belt and burned the green cane leaves to a shade of khaki. The stalk underneath, however, protected by layers of sheaves, remained green.

Naturally, farmers would prefer a frost-free harvest year, but the cane plant allows producers to have several harvesting options when cold weather strikes. Years of research sponsored by the American Sugar Cane League, LSU AgCenter and United States Department of Agriculture developed varieties of cane that are cold-tolerant. Farmers adjusted their harvesting schedule to cut the least cold-tolerant varieties in the days after the freeze and the mills worked together to process the affected cane quickly. A cool December prevented additional deterioration.

When an early January freeze dropped temperatures into the 20s, most of the state’s crop had been harvested and what remained was on the best land and easily accessible to equipment.

Final numbers aren’t in yet, but all factors indicate that the 2013 crop will rank in the top five with more than 1.6 million tons of raw sugar produced. Cane tonnage was about 34 tons per acre and yielded about 220 pounds of raw sugar per ton. Farmers grew about 440,000 acres of sugarcane and harvested 410,000 acres. The remaining 30,000 acres was harvested as seed cane.

All in all, Louisiana’s 483 producers and 11 mills provide the sugar needs of more than 60 million Americans. That means a single Louisiana sugarcane farming operation like Travis Medine and his brother’s outfit in Port Allen can supply the sugar needs of nearly 125,000 people. One sugarcane farmer…125,000 consumers. Amazing.

Low prices remain a concern for the state’s sugarcane industry, however. The North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) has allowed Mexico to move sugar into United States markets without restraint. The result is oversupply and depressed prices. How low? Early in 2012, the price for sugar was about 30 cents a pound. By the end of 2013, sugar prices returned to the 21 cents per pound range — the same price farmers got 25 years ago.

Some industries, economists and politicians believe free trade is the ultimate answer. Bring it on. In a truly free market, the efficient Louisiana sugarcane farmer could compete with any foreign grower — Indian, Mexican or Brazilian. We’re ready to compete in the mythical pure free market.  The problem is that the free market is just that — a myth. There is no free market in the sugar world.

Louisiana’s sugarcane industry, however, supports a "zero-for-zero” trade policy. We’ll end our sugar program and provide zero support to sugar farmers if other countries zero out their sugar subsidies.

It’s doubtful Mexico will be changing its sugar policy anytime soon — 20 percent of the Mexican sugar industry is owned by the government.

India, the world’s second biggest sugar producer and third largest exporter in 2011, won’t be ending its government sugar program either. India’s government just announced a huge tax break program and other incentives that will make it possible for sugar mills to greatly increase their exports. Reuters News Service reported December 31 that the India’s sugar mills can offer enormous discounts to world buyers and still be guaranteed a profit. That’s on top of a Dec. 20 billion dollar interest-free bailout loan the Indian government gave to the already heavily-subsidized Indian industry. That’s hardly free trade. 

There is a national sentiment to protect Louisiana industry and jobs, but it seems as though only the most efficient industries can survive in the United States. The Louisiana sugarcane industry has survived in America for 219 years because it has adapted and incorporated research and skill into its production methods. 219 years and counting — now that’s efficiency.

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