Chad Hanks can sum up this sugarcane growing season rather succinctly.
“Unprecedented,” Hanks said as he stood in a sugarcane field in Lafayette Parish.
The field Hanks was in had cane that was barely 3 feet tall when it should have been 7 to 9 feet tall. Conditions in southwestern Louisiana are some of the worst in the cane belt.
“We’ve got cane that looks like it might be the first of March,” Hanks said.
Weather conditions have negatively impacted the crops in the field and are complicating planting. Most cane farmers put their plant cane in the ground during late July and August. They try to avoid planting and harvesting at the same time because of the stress it puts on both workers and machines. The harvest generally begins in September.
Because of the cane being short and dry conditions in his fields, Hanks has yet to start planting. In fact, Hanks sent his workers home because it does not look like he will be planting anytime soon.
In St. James Parish, Matt Gravois considers himself somewhat fortunate. He had stopped planting for a week because of the dry conditions, but he received 3/4 inch of rain Aug. 21. The rain allowed him to resume planting but he is unsure of how long the moisture is going to hold up.
As of Tuesday, Gravois had about 700 acres to plant. He is planting billets, stalks that are cut into smaller pieces instead of whole stalks of cane. Planting billets allows him to use less labor, and he can plant faster. When conditions are favorable, Gravois believes he can plant nearly 40 acres a day.
Like everyone else, the heat and dry weather are taking a toll on his crop.
“Last year, we had 34 to 35 tons to the acre,” Gravois said. “This year, I’m thinking around 30 to 31 tons. The cane is at least a foot shorter, and we’re on the verge of the tips turning brown.”
Experts echo Hanks’ statement that the sugarcane industry is in uncharted territory.
“We have failed acres due to freeze events in the wintertime and spring,” said Kenneth Gravois, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist. “Never had a failed acre, to my knowledge, from an extended dry spell.”
In his lifetime, he has never seen weather this harsh during the prime months of growth for Louisiana sugarcane.
“It’s unprecedented heat,” Gravois said. “I’ve seen dry Junes. I’ve seen dry Julys. I’ve seen a dry August. But never three in a row.”
Last year, Louisiana sugarcane producers set a record, producing just more than 2 million tons of raw sugar. For the first time ever, Louisiana outpaced Florida in production. Growers will not beat that number this year.
Gravois said there are pockets of good cane. This cane received a few isolated rain showers, which have been far less common this summer.
“Sugarcane is a resilient crop, he said. “If we get some rain, we can add some tonnage to this crop and that will improve our sugar yields.”
For Hanks, it may be too late for much of his crop.
“I guess I’m looking at an overall 40% reduction in potential average yield,” Hanks said. “I’m not even talking about a bumper crop. We’re in dire straits, especially on the western side of the cane belt.”
On the northern edge of the cane belt, things are not much better. Will Bain and his family farm in Rapides and Avoyelles parishes. The weather there is reducing yield and preventing planting.
“We’re off close to 10 tons an acre,” Bain said. “We’re about 2 feet shorter than last year.”
Bain is one of the few sugarcane farmers that can irrigate his crop. He can irrigate about 25% of his sugarcane acreage, and Bain believes that irrigation added about 10 tons.
But even with irrigation, that cane probably will yield close to 25 tons an acre. Bain said his farm for the last three to five years was yielding in the mid 30s, and his better ground broke 40 tons per acre.
Some timely summer rains allowed Bain to plant nearly 400 acres already. He has another 200 acres of soybeans to cut where he will plant cane. He will probably have to wait to plant until soil moisture levels go up.
Hopeful for rain to come, Bain believes it will help the crop.
“If we can get some rain, I think the crop can recover, and we can add some tonnage and improve our sugar numbers,” Bain said.
It appears there will be some unharvestable acres this year. Kenneth Gravois is working with raw sugar factories and crop insurance representatives to establish the process of determining failed acreage. With little chance of rain in the extended forecast, conditions could continue to deteriorate.
“It’s going to take more than one rain event to break a climatological drought,” he said. “We’ve been dry for a long time.”