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Sugarcane farmers head back to school for LSU AgCenter program

Twenty-six farmers and others who work in the Louisiana sugar industry have begun a six-month program that will help them learn about important scientific and economic topics.

The LSU AgCenter Sugarcane Production School held its first session on March 16 and 17 on the LSU campus. The school will hold monthly two-day sessions until September. Sugar School

"It is designed to train young sugarcane farmers who are early in their career about all aspects of sugarcane production with the goal of educating them to be successful in their farming business,” said Mike Salassi, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness.

The AgCenter sugar school is modeled after one held in the early 1990s at Nicholls State University. No such program has been held in Louisiana since.

"This is something that the industry has asked for,” Salassi said of the AgCenter program.

The curriculum was developed with input from the Louisiana Farm Bureau and American Sugar Cane League. Participants were chosen through an application process.

The school will cover topics such as government policies, variety development and controlling weeds, insects and diseases. It also will include trips to research farms and facilities.

The students’ first lesson came from AgCenter sugarcane specialist Kenneth Gravois, who talked about the history of the industry in Louisiana.

"History imparts perspective,” he said, adding that farmers can make better decisions if they understand how and why the industry has evolved.

Explorers brought sugarcane to Louisiana in the late 1600s, Gravois said, but the crop was not considered valuable until Jean Étienne de Boré made the first granulated sugar using kettles in 1795. His discovery helped the industry take off, and demand for sugar grew.

Sugarcane farming thrived in Louisiana until the Civil War. As farmers struggled to recover from the war, they also found they had new competition from Cuba and Caribbean island nations that had started growing sugarcane.

Gravois said those difficulties prompted the formation of the Louisiana Sugar Planters Association in 1877.

"They recognized the need for science,” Gravois said of the association, which opened the Louisiana Sugar Experiment Station in 1885 and the Audubon Sugar School in 1891 to conduct research and train experts. Their work helped farmers grow higher-quality cane.

The association was folded into a new group, the American Sugar Cane League, in 1922.

Today, the league, the AgCenter and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are responsible for working together to evaluate and release new sugarcane varieties. Gravois said the partnership is essential because it provides growers with varieties that have good sugar content, resistance to pests and other traits that help ensure a successful crop.

Other topics covered during the sugar school’s opening session were soils, weed science, economics, botany and physiology. The students will tackle lessons on diseases, production costs, labor programs and variety breeding at their next meeting, which is set for April 20 to 21.

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