Over the past ten years, sugarcane acreage has rapidly expanded, especially in Vermillion Parish in the western cane belt and Pointe Coupee, Avoyelles and Rapides in the north. Pointe Coupee now has more than 70,000 acres in production, when just ten years ago parish acreage was only 43,000. That’s a 62 percent increase.
What are the factors behind this dramatic expansion? — a stable sugar price, sound national sugar policy, sugar mills motivated to expand production and weather conditions. All these circumstances played a role in the rapid expansion of sugarcane.
But just as economic and weather forces can work for a crop, they can also exert a negative influence.
By Jim Simon
Manager, American Sugar Cane League
The 2022 sugarcane year was very successful, but it would have been a bumper crop had it not been for the severe three-day freeze that occurred around Christmas. Freezing temperatures in the low teens were recorded in the northern cane belt parishes and 25 degree readings were registered in Houma way down south in Terrebonne Parish.
Fortunately for the industry, the harvest was about 90 percent complete when the freeze occurred. Cane can continue to be harvested for about a week after a freeze without too much drop in sugar recovery and we were able to reach a 95 percent completion rate with good sugar. On the negative side, some mills processed cane all the way up to January 21 and their sugar recovery was drastically affected.
How do you mitigate the risk of a devasting freeze or an unexpected one that occurs on St. Patrick’s Day? One mill is proposing to add extra milling capacity thereby reducing their grinding season from 120 days to 100 days.
In 2021, Hurricane Ida devastated the southeastern cane belt. When the norm for cane is harvesting around 33 tons of cane per acre, some farmers were lucky to get 26 tons out of their hurricane-ravaged fields. There is no way to plan for a hurricane, so growers take their lumps when a storm plows through their fields.
It’s unlikely that any single natural disaster will knock a cane farmer out of business. Sugarcane is a hardy plant that grows well with a lot of water and can be harvested under wet conditions. And crop insurance for cane has been improved in recent years.
But there are other outside forces affecting sugarcane. The urban interface is butting up against sugarcane fields and farmers are losing land. Also, as we enter the green energy period, farmers are having to compete with solar farms for land and there is really no competition. If a landowner gets an offer to put 1,500 acres into solar energy, it’s very likely the owner will lease the land to the energy provider. Losing 1,500 acres of farmland can put a cane farmer out of business.
Government can also impose rules on industry. The Department of Labor has proposed a new rule regarding farm laborers who drive trucks. The DOL wants to reclassify those workers specifically as truck drivers at a significantly higher rate of pay. If the rule goes into effect, it will mean substantially higher costs for producers. Is it a factor that will drive producers out of sugarcane? That remains to be seen.
There are a lot of things that affect sugarcane farming and that’s why the function of the American Sugar Cane League will always be important. The farmer and miller are busy looking at ways to improve their crop and sugar recovery. They don’t have time to pay attention to the daily workings of the DOL, Homeland Security, Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture. The League does that for them. But when the time comes, it is important for producers to keep the League strong by participating in the research committees that decide how to spend research dollars. The League volunteer members also decide how to spend the public relations budget, how to track legislation in state and national government and participate in fly-ins to visit Capitol Hill to tell Members of Congress how important the farm bill, crop insurance and sugar policy is to Louisiana.
Yes, there are many factors that affect how much land will be put into sugarcane, some that can be controlled and some that can’t, but keeping the American Sugar Cane League strong by volunteering your time, energy and resources will always remain a high priority.