Spring is the time when gardeners are busy preparing their rows and getting the soil ready for seed planting. It’s a rite of spring, a time for rebirth and new growth.
Some of you nurtured tomato plants in a protected spot hoping to get a head start on your tomatoes. With a successful garden, you become the most popular person in the neighborhood because you have too many tomatoes, eggplants and cucumbers and you are proud to give them away.
by Jim Simon
Across Louisiana, soybean, corn, and cotton farmers are doing the same thing. They are getting their fields ready for seed planting. South Louisiana’s sugarcane farms are getting their fields ready as well, but they aren’t planting seeds – their seeds were planted 12 years ago.
Let me explain. Sugarcane is a grass and, like a lawn, continues to grow after harvesting. Sugarcane roots can overwinter and, fortunately for Louisiana, the roots weren’t killed by this year’s Mardi Gras freeze. Now, as you drive through sugarcane country, you may see green sugarcane shoots marking the rows. These shoots are sprouting from underground roots that may be only a year, but as many as several years old.
While sugarcane starts as seed, commercial sugarcane farmers plant cane stalks lengthwise in the ground and new growth arise from the jointed stalks. They grow their own seedcane and cut it for planting. A farmer can “expand” a single acre of a desired variety because as much as five to seven acres of cane can be planted from a single acre of seedcane. Each planting season (August-October), a farmer strives to replace about 25 percent of his crop with seedcane. He can get as many as four and sometimes even more crops from a single seedcane planting.
What about the sugarcane seeds planted 12 years ago? American Sugar Cane League agronomists team up with variety breeding researchers at the USDA and LSU AgCenter sugarcane farms to place parent plants in special greenhouses to flower for pollination and seed production. Those seeds are planted at the experimental farms, numerically identified, and monitored for 12 years. Each plant, subject to all the conditions Louisiana’s weather can throw at it, is potentially a new cane variety.
Many don’t make it through the first year. Each subsequent year, some plants are selected for expansion and advance through the culling process. Varieties chosen for expansion are planted on sugarcane land managed by volunteer growers who maintain the experimental plots exactly like the rest of their commercial crop. Researchers harvest the experimental varieties and keep track of their ability to make sugar, regrow (stubble), survive cold and resist disease. At the end of the 12-year process, a League committee of researchers, growers and millers decide if any of the experimental varieties will be released to the commercial sugarcane industry. Last year, one new variety was approved. This year, two are slated for release. Sometimes, none make the final cut. Currently, the League variety development committee is studying the 2020 variety development results.
In 2020, we produced nearly two million tons of sugar, a record amount. It means the sugarcane variety development program is working and Louisiana remains a leader in sugar production.
Jim Simon is the manager of the American Sugar Cane League, the trade organization that represents Louisiana’s sugarcane producers and millers. The League was founded in 1922.