Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
Sugarcane farmers breathed a huge sigh of relief after completing their harvest in late January, following the past year’s challenges of a tumultuous hurricane season and COVID.
Jim Simon, general manager of the American Sugar Cane League, said the 2020-21 crop fared well, and a big part of that was the weather in the previous year that set up conditions for a good crop with favorable weather at the right time. “It takes a year’s worth of weather to make or break a cane crop. All in all, we were extremely fortunate.”
He said the matured crop was cut without any hard freezes, and the planting season last summer went off well. “We were fortunate to get the majority of our cane planted before the storms.”
These conditions up to now sets up this year for a possible repeat, he said. “We’re positioned to have a good crop in 2021.”
But the year was not without its challenges. The obvious one is the tropical weather that sent storm after storm to Louisiana that lodged cane and caused mills to shut down for as long as days. But he said the long harvest, 125 days in some cases, was taxing on personnel and equipment.
Getting labor into the country on time for harvest to start was a big problem, and it’s uncertain how the Biden administration policies will affect that, he said.
“We were very fortunate to get through the crop with the coronavirus problem,” he said.
“Our mills and our growers did an excellent job of complying with the CDC guidelines.”
Cheneyville grower Jim Harper was pleased with the result. He finished harvest on Jan. 28.
“We had a good crop,” he said. “It wasn’t a record crop, but it was one of our better crops.”
Harper, president of the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, said hurricanes interfered with planting but the storms didn’t seem to have much of an effect on cane that was harvested. He said the current varieties apparently can withstand storms better. “That has made a tremendous difference for us.”
He said it wasn’t a problem getting his workers into the country this year, possibly because they are from Guatemala.
Harper said acreage is continuing to increase in the north side of the cane belt, but he’s not sure the mills need much more feedstock. “They’ve got about all the cane they can grind.”
After enduring hurricanes and floods, Ricky Gonsoulin is flabbergasted that his crop in the New Iberia area did well. He wrapped up harvest the last week of January. “It turned out pretty good at the end.”
He said his crop produced more than 8,000 pounds of sugar per acre, and he cut 38 tons per acre.
Back in October, after being battered by a series of weather events, he didn’t have a good feeling for how his crop would perform.
“I was not even optimistic that we’d do that well,” he admitted. “The sugar industry as a whole did well.”
He said there are reports of some sugar yields of 9,000 pounds per acre.
Gonsoulin said he lost 120 acres of plant cane due to flooding from storm surge. He tried to save it by cutting gaps in the levee with a backhoe, but it took 14 days to drain, he said. If he could have removed the water within 2-3 days, he said, the planted field could have been saved.
Gonsoulin said he didn’t want to leave the ground bare after plowing up the ruined plant cane, so he planted cover crops including winter peas, vetch, radishes and turnips. He also built up his levees to 6 feet high for the next storm.
Herman Waguespack, research director with the American Sugar Cane League, said at a recent meeting of Louisiana ag consultants that the storms actually brought badly needed moisture to many dry fields. He said the storms were preceded by clear weather that allowed the cane to continue growing right up until harvest.
Ronald Hebert of Jeanerette said his crop in St. Mary Parish turned out above average. But the 110-day harvest was a strain, he said. He said his harvest started late because of problems getting foreign labor into the U.S., and then Laura halted harvest for 4 days.
“We were fortunate because we were able to miss the worst part of the storms.”
He said about 5% of his plant cane acreage will have to be replanted because of flooding from storm surges.
Hurricane winds knocked much of the cane down, he said, slowing harvest. But he was thankful that the cane wasn’t twisted. “We had to get down in the dirt to harvest it.
There was no breakage and the leaves didn’t get beat up. The plants were fairly healthy.”
Hebert hopes this year’s hurricane season will not be as bad as 2020. “I bought hurricane insurance, so maybe it won’t.”
Hebert said he grew weary of the continuous storm alerts. “You would just finish with one, and you look at the Weather Channel and it would show another one.”
And now that the year is past, it’s hard to keep track of the storms, so let’s review. There was Tropical Storm Cristobal in June as the second-earliest tropical cyclone to make landfall in Louisiana. Storm surge flooded Grand Isle, and the storm continued its path of damage all the way into Canada.
The month of July passed without a storm, but then in August, hurricanes Marco and Laura lined up for a 1-2 punch. Fortunately, Marco fizzled when it hit Louisiana on Aug. 24, but Laura slammed the state on Aug. 27, focusing on Cameron with a devastating hurricane all the way to Arkansas. The Lake Charles area has yet to recover from the Category 4 storm, and long-term damage to timber is evident throughout the state.
Crops and timber were damaged extensively, and sugarcane was knocked down by winds and low-lying areas were flooded. Overall, Laura caused more than $19.1 billion in damage and 77 deaths throughout the U.S.
On Sept. 13, Hurricane Sally grazed southeast Louisiana. It was followed by Tropical Storm Beta that hit Texas on Sept. 21 after passing by Louisiana. Then came Hurricane Delta that hit on Oct. 5 just miles from Laura’s landfall, bringing damaging winds to the southwest corner of the state, and flooding along the coast into sugarcane-growing areas.
But despite the storms, amazingly it appears the crop not only survived by it set a record.
“We’re going to produce almost 2 million tons of sugar. That’s a record for Louisiana,” said Dr. Kenneth Gravois, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist.
Harvest started in September and continued for almost 125 consecutive days in some areas, with a few days off because of hurricanes, but Gravois said the lengthy harvest indicates farmers and mills did well. “That’s a good problem. That means we had a big crop,” Gravois said.
Gravois said some delays occurred because of hurricanes and problems with getting imported labor into the U.S.
But once those delays were cleared, the harvest results were encouraging. The average harvest was 36 tons of cane per acre that resulted in 233 pounds of sugar per ton, and 8,352 pounds of sugar per acre. “That’s a Top 3 crop for Louisiana,” Gravois said.
He said dry weather set up good conditions for planting and most of the 2020 planting was complete when Hurricane Laura hit in August.
Gravois said hurricanes knocked cane down, but the newer varieties have been easier to harvest when lodged.
The mild winter has allowed regrowth to start for the early harvested cane, he said.
The state’s 496,000 acres in 2020 will probably exceed 500,000 in 2021, he said, with expansion in the north and west parts of the cane growing region. Acreage has decreased in some areas such as Lafayette, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, along with some of the River Parishes, he said, but those reductions have been offset by increases in Rapides, Avoyelles, St. Landry and Vermilion parishes.
Gravois said more than a fifth of this year’s crop was third-year stubble or older, and that’s largely because of the ability of variety L01-299, the dominant variety, to produce a good stubble crop.
Mark Carriere, LSU AgCenter county agent in Pointe Coupee and Iberville parishes, said farmers were pleased in his area after they finished harvest in early January, and they were grateful the crop didn’t encounter any early freezes. “It’s not a record-breaking year for them but it’s right up there.”
He said the Alma Mill reported almost 36 tons of cane per acre that produced more than 250 pounds of sugar per ton of cane, with 9,018 pounds of sugar per acre.
He said fields were dry until the last part of the harvest, but minimal rutting occurred.
“That will help for next year’s yield.”
Planting went well, he said, and farmers finished on schedule. Billet planting is on the increase, he said.
Pointe Coupee Parish led the state in 2020 with 66,656 acres of cane, and Carriere expects that number to increase. “We’ll have to see what happens with soybean prices.”
Stuart Gauthier, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Martin Parish, said farmers in the area are pleased with results from 2020. “For a lot of our farmers, it will be one of the better years.”
He said tonnage in the St. Martin Parish area probably average 34-36 tons per acre, and the average yield is around 220 pounds of sugar per ton of cane.
Gauthier said the LASUCA mill is expanding and that will probably result in a shorter grinding season next year. “From a few years ago, they have almost doubled capacity.”
Gauthier said weather, with the exception of tropical systems, cooperated. “We were fortunate, considering everything we went through this year. It’s been pretty unremarkable in terms of freezing.”
He said seed cane went down after Hurricane Laura but it wasn’t twisted.
Blair Hebert, LSU AgCenter county agent in Iberia Parish, said there were losses in areas along the coast from storm damage, but most farmers are pleased with their outcome.
“We had respectable sugar and tonnage. 2020 is a year we’re going to look back on and say how lucky we were.”
Hebert said he was surprised by the results after the crop went through several bouts of storms from the gulf. “This crop has certainly surpassed the yields that I thought it would make after the tropical weather.”
But he said he’s sure the result would have been better if not for the hurricanes.
Hebert said the long grinding season has been a challenge for the industry. “One hundred and 20 days of wear and tear on you is physically and emotionally difficult. You cannot say enough about the resilience of our local sugarcane farmers.”
Al Orgeron, LSU AgCenter sugarcane pest specialist, said the crop in the River Parishes and in the Houma-Thibodaux area did well. He said one farmer told him the yield on one field increased by 15 tons.
Orgeron said the hurricanes had minimal impact on the area’s crop, and only caused a few days’ delay.
“Grinding went on without a hitch,” Orgeron said. “All in all, I think we’re one for the record book. Not a record crop but really a Top 5 crop.”
He said planting was accomplished within 20-25 days. “This is probably the quickest planting some of these guys ever had.”