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Predicting the sugarcane harvest – no easy task

Hurricane Ida downed cane in Iberville Parish but hit harder in the southeastern part of Louisiana’s cane belt. Despite the downed cane, today’s modern harvesters can harvest cane that is blown over.

The sugarcane crop is ready to harvest, and Louisiana’s 11 sugar mills are grinding cane 24 hours a day.

About 15.5 million tons of cane is expected to be harvested this year. Based on past performance, the United States Department of Agriculture’s World Agricultural Supply & Demand Estimates is predicting we’ll produce about 1.8 million tons of raw sugar from that 15.5 million tons.

Will we hit that raw sugar target? It’s difficult to say. Each harvest year is different and presents a new set of variables to consider. I’m sure none of us predicted seven named weather systems, five that were hurricanes, to hit Louisiana in a little more than a year. Nor did anyone predict almost a week of February sub-freezing weather, a lingering pandemic and two years of a mediocre Tiger football team after arguably the best season in college football history and a national championship in 2019.

How will it all affect the harvest? Well, the Tigers football team won’t hurt anything but our state pride, but Hurricane Ida will have an effect on about 25 percent of the crop.

Louisiana’s cane farmers are used to dealing with adverse conditions, but Ida added a few unexpected wrinkles…like lost roofs on guest labor housing and damage to parts of the USDA Houma sugarcane research unit. On one Lafourche farm, the guest workers had to evacuate mid-storm to the grower’s personal home to ride out the remainder of the fearsome weather event. Already hampered by excessive rain, some growers were unable to plant before the storm and the influx of emergency power grid workers and other first responders on Hwy. 308 and Hwy 1 make it difficult to move farm equipment on clogged roads. Farmers in the affected area will also have to deal with storm debris (tires, metal junk, boats, you name it) in the fields. In other words, they have a mess down there.

Hurricane Ida damaged a tractor barn at the USDA’s Sugarcane Research Unit in Houma.

Prior to Hurricane Ida’s unwanted presence, Louisiana was already experiencing an unprecedented amount of rainfall. Louisiana typically receives about 60 inches of rain. A grower in the Cheneyville area mentioned to me that he has measured more than 90 inches of rain so far and the year is not over. The wet weather affected planting throughout the cane belt, not just in the hurricane-stricken area. One thing farmers hate to do is plant and harvest cane at the same time. It’s nerve-racking, difficult, and expensive.

But what if the excessive rain pattern continues through harvest? In 2019, the sugarcane industry was coming off two exceptional, record-breaking production years. Producers averaged record tonnage per acre and new growers were flocking to sugarcane. Expectations were high, but the 2018 harvest was so wet, the following year’s ratoon crops were damaged and cane tonnage and sugar per acre was significantly reduced.

What about the extreme freeze the state experienced in February 2021? How did the 2020 plantcane and ratoon crop fare over the winter? Visuals of the summertime cane seemed good, but we won’t really know until the last stalk is chopped and goes through the mill sometimes in January. Combine all these factors with Hurricane Ida damage and it’s difficult to predict what the season will be like.

So, what do we know? In all likelihood, the 2021 harvest will produce a successful, but average crop. The 25 percent of the crop in Ida-affected area will be harvested. It immediately began to erect itself the day after the storm as brown dead leaves gave way to new ones and the fields greened up quite a bit. The remainder of the crop in the unaffected region continues to look good and will keep on growing to the day it is harvested.

The cane varieties that we grow have 200 years of quality genetic breeding behind it. They have been bred to produce more sugar and tolerate heat, wind, cold and water. Modern cane harvesters can lift up and cut lodged cane.

Sugarcane is a tough crop. Sugarcane producers are also a tough lot, and they’ll figure out a way to overcome this year’s adversity. Just as we always do.

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