Louisiana sugar cane farmers watched helplessly this year as, day after day, rain fell through spring and into summer, saturating fields and keeping farmhands from spraying herbicide and performing other crop maintenance.
Then they watched their cane stalks turn brown in the fields during a searing seven-week drought that finally ended in mid-August.
Still, farmers and other industry experts are hoping for an average crop this winter, maybe even above average. The cane still can gain the vigor it so far has lacked. And each stalk might yet produce a lot of sugar.
But the weather has to cooperate by remaining sunny and not so hot, and it also has to provide a shower here and there before the harvest begins in October.
“The rain that we had last week was a very good thing,” said Kenneth Gravois, a sugar cane specialist with the LSU AgCenter. “We can make up a lot of lost ground in September and October. We’ve made good crops off of late growth before.”
The weather this year was extreme, with the sequence of wet and dry periods falling just the opposite of what farmers want, said Jim Simon, general manager of the American Sugar Cane League.
“Really, to make an ideal cane crop in Louisiana, we like a dry spring and a wet summer. And we had just the opposite,” Simon said.
Chad Hanks, who farms 3,000 acres of cane in Vermilion, Lafayette and Acadia parishes, said the drought stressed his crops.
“I don’t think we’ll be looking at anything to brag about,” Hanks said.
“We were looking at a slightly better-than-average crop” during the early summer, he said. “Then Mother Nature turned off the faucet.”
Fields that were parched received some rain relief in the past few weeks, and experts believe there’s a good chance the cane can produce a high sugar content, which is a measure of how much sugar can be ground out of a stalk of cane.
LSU AgCenter agricultural economist Mike Salassi said the 2015 cane’s sugar content won’t be known until the cane is harvested and brought to the mills for grinding.
Louisiana cane farmers last year produced a crop high in sugar content. But the pounds of cane stalks cut from each acre, called tonnage, varied from one side of the Atchafalaya River to the other.
Denny Lanaux farms 4,000 acres in St. John, St. Charles and Lafourche parishes, on the eastern side of the Atchafalaya. In 2014, Lanaux and others in the southeast part of the state harvested crops with a high sugar content, but the tonnage didn’t measure up to what farmers were cutting in southwest Louisiana.
Lanaux said that even with the heavy spring rains and weeks of scorching summer drought, his crop this year looks better than last year’s.
Whatever the quality or quantity turns out to be, farmers should get a fairly good price for their sugar when it’s sold next year, Simon said.
On Friday, the sugar grown and sold by Louisiana farmers traded at about 24.5 cents per pound of raw sugar. In December 2013, the price was just above 20 cents, the result of millions of tons of duty-free Mexican sugar that hit the U.S. market.
The American Sugar Cane League, the American Sugar Alliance and other industry advocates filed an anti-dumping case with the International Trade Administration; American sugar farmers, they reasoned, could not stay in business with sugar at 20 cents.
The ITA, a division of the Commerce Department, reached a tentative agreement with Mexico to prevent widespread dumping. On Sept. 16, the ITA will hold another hearing on the matter.
“As things stand now, the Mexican problem is not as big a problem as it was. We’re making a little headway, but we still have some hurdles to clear,” Simon said.