Louisiana sugarcane growers enjoy good harvest weather

Sugarcane is being loaded into trucks at a loading area in Patterson.
(The Daily Review Photo by Crystal Thielepape)

By BRUCE SCHULTZ bschultz@agcenter.lsu.edu and additional reporting by Jean L. McCorkle, staff reporter

Louisiana sugarcane farmers in the midst of the 2014 harvest are benefitting from good weather that has made conditions easier to get their crop out of the fields, according to LSU AgCenter experts.
LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Kenneth Gravois said the crop is better than expected after a difficult start of the growing year with cold weather.
Patterson farmer Mike Accardo agreed. “It’s a decent year. It’s better than we expected with the late cold, but it’s doing better than we expected. It’s not a bumper crop down here, but it’s a decent crop,” Accardo said.
Farmers are harvesting less-productive fields now that have older cane or where drainage would be poor after heavy rain. “Within a week or so, people are going to be moving into their better land,” Gravois said.
Warm weather from August until early October helped the cane grow, and now the dry spell is just what farmers needed to get the crop out of the fields efficiently, he said. “The grinding rates improve when the weather is good, and all this sunshine is packing sucrose into the stalks.”
Accardo concurred, “We’re enjoying this dry weather for one thing … we’re right on schedule.”
A proposed trade settlement with Mexico has bumped prices up a few cents and lifted farmers’ spirits.
“This settlement provides a little more confidence in the market,” Gravois said. “But there are a lot of details to be worked out.”
Sugar mills are expecting to finish earlier than in years past, with some done before Christmas at the current level of harvesting and grinding. “All indications are we should have an earlier finish,” he said.
Accardo said he didn’t think Franklin-based Sterling Sugars would finish that quickly.
“They’re looking at right around the end of the year. I don’t think Sterling will finish before Christmas,” Accardo said.
Two major factors made a difference in this year’s crop, both weather-related. A cold winter likely had the effect of diminishing rust disease that could have robbed cane plants of nutrients, Gravois said. In addition, a lack of tropical storms this year resulted in a minimal amount of downed cane that would have created a slower, more expensive harvest.
Al Orgeron, LSU AgCenter sugarcane weed specialist and agent in St. James Parish, said the crop is better than expected. He said he originally thought farmers would be cutting cane with a third less sugar than last year.
“It’s not a record, but it’s a sweet crop,” he said. “Overall, I think we’re going to do well if we don’t have a freeze.”
Dry weather means farmers will have fewer equipment breakdowns and fields will be rutted less, Orgeron said. “A lot of people have their worst land harvested, so even if we get a rainy spell, it will be easier to finish up.”
Rick Louque, LSU AgCenter agent in Terrebonne Parish, said weather is making the difference in the harvest. “As long as this weather stays all right, we’re doing fine.”
Tonnage per acre is down this year, but the sugar recovery is up, Louque said. Grinding should end around Christmas in Terrebonne Parish, as projected.
“We’re probably going to have a fair year,” Louque concluded.
Planting took longer than usual because of heavy rainfall in late summer, Louque said, and some fields are still being planted.
That’s also the case in St. Martin Parish, where farmers struggled to get their seed cane in the ground, according to the AgCenter agent there, Stuart Gauthier.
The farmers are more upbeat because of the higher prices and, so far, a clean harvest.
“It’s interesting,” Gauthier said. “Three or four months ago people were pretty skeptical about the crop, and I heard projections that we were going to be down 8 to 20 percent. Now we may have as good a crop or better than last year.”
A price increase probably won’t benefit most farmers until next year but they will be more willing to invest more in their operations for 2015, he said. “With a little better price and more optimism, they may look at returning more land into cane.”
Farmer Justin Frederick, of Arnaudville, said the only weather problem he’s had so far during harvest has been fog so thick that tractor drivers couldn’t see the combine.
The clean harvest makes the work easier, with fewer breakdowns or interruptions for maintenance, Frederick said. “When the weather is nice and dry, machinery is functioning well.”
He said his sugar recovery is in the range of 190 to 200 pounds per ton of sugar.
Gravois said that’s typical across Louisiana.
Frederick belongs to the Louisiana Sugarcane Cooperative mill at St. Martinville, and the facility is expected to shut down after 85-86 days of grinding. He said harvest began Oct. 1.
Gravois said some mills started their grinding seasons later than usual to allow the cane to grow more.
Frederick said he only managed to plant 85 acres this year because of bad weather. “We had one rain after another. We went for weeks without planting.”
The price for sugar caused him to cut back on some of his expenses this year, Frederick said. “It’s very tough right now if you don’t run your farm in an efficient manner. Your inputs exceed your profits a lot of times.”
Chad Hanks and Carl “Bubba” Guidry are working around the clock to get their crop out of the fields in Lafayette Parish.
“Right now we are really enjoying the wonderful weather we are having,” Hanks said. “As long as it stays dry, it makes harvest a lot easier.”
Sugar levels have been outstanding, with 250 pounds extracted from each ton of cane, Hanks said. And some farmers are getting 300 pounds.
“When you add the average tonnage to exceptional sugar, it adds up to a pretty good year,” he said.
Sugarcane grown by Hanks and Guidry goes to the M.A. Patout sugar mill near Jeanerette.
Hanks said the mill had anticipated a 90-day grinding season, but many growers have more tonnage than expected. “We’re probably looking at a 110-day grinding, which would put us well into the second week of January.”

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