The fall’s heavy rains hit the Louisiana sugar cane industry at just about the worst possible time, slowing down the harvesting process, reducing crop yields, knocking down thousands of acres of plants and flooding fields.
“These are not the best conditions for a harvest,” said Ken Gravois, a sugar cane specialist with the LSU AgCenter. Gravois said the grinding season had a good start in late September. But the weekend before Halloween, the remnants of Hurricane Patricia hit Louisiana and dumped several inches of rain across the state. Then, on Halloween weekend, storms dumped a similar amount of rain. And the first weekend of November remained soggy and overcast.
Bobby Morris, a farmer with 3,500 acres of sugar cane in West Baton Rouge Parish, told the AgCenter the normal rainfall during a harvest is 15 to 16 inches. Roughly that much rain fell over the last two weekends of October, he said.
“I’ve been from Rapides to Vermilion to St. James Parish and it’s been wet all over, down from one end of the cane belt to the other,” Gravois said. Of the nearly 458,000 acres of sugar cane crops in Louisiana, 65 percent had not been harvested by late October. The remnants of Patricia knocked down 75 percent to 80 percent of the crops that hadn’t been harvested, Gravois said.
It’s more difficult to harvest sugar cane stalks that have been knocked down into the mud, since all the equipment is designed for standing-tall stalks. And once the cane gets to the mills, the grinding process is slowed because of the mud, water and debris that gets picked up. This leads to sugar cane yields that are 10 percent to 20 percent less than normal, Gravois said.
“It’s just kind of slowed everything down, and it affects the amount of money we receive from cane,” said Travis Medine, who will harvest about 2,800 acres of sugar cane in Iberville and West Baton Rouge parishes. Medine said his yields have been reduced by 10 percent to 15 percent.
The situation is worse in some parts of the state.
Between 500 to 800 acres of sugar cane in St. James Parish flooded along U.S. Highway 61 in the Lutcher-Gramercy area and south of Vacherie, said Jim Simon, general manager of the American Sugar Cane League, which supports the state’s sugar industry. “In a couple of pockets around the state, this is a real problem,” he said. While the farmland that has flooded isn’t the best for growing sugar cane, and it represents a small portion of the overall crop, Simon said it’s still good productive land.
Not only are flooded cane fields a problem during this year’s harvest, they could potentially be an issue in the future. Sugar cane stalks grow from the same roots for at least three years, Simon said.
The economic impact of the flooding is difficult to say, Simon said, because of the fact that the waters could be a problem for several years. “There’s a good bit of land where they just planted sugar cane for next year’s crop,” he said.
Greg Gravois, a St. James sugar cane farmer and brother to Ken Gravois, said before the storms he was getting about 210 pounds of sugar per ton of cane. After all the wet weather, his yield dropped to 180 pounds per ton.
“That’s definitely affecting our bottom line,” said Greg Gravois, who has about 3,500 acres of farmland around Vacherie. “We’re getting 1980s prices for sugar, but all of our input, like fuel and equipment, are not at 1980s-level prices.”
Simon and Greg Gravois point the blame for the St. James flooding on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps built hurricane levees across south Louisiana but stopped the work in St. James because it decided it would not provide enough benefit for the cost. When there’s heavy rainfall, the water has to go somewhere, so it sloshes over to areas that aren’t protected by a levee.
Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain said the flooding in St. James happened because of backflow from Lake Maurepas. “The water came up three days after the rain stopped,” he said. Winds from the southeast push water into Lake Ponchartrain and in turn into Maurepas. Water flowing into Maurepas has no place to go.
Strain said he plans to work with local farmers and St. James Parish government to address the flooding issue with the Corps. This is part of a larger issue to get a more comprehensive levee plan. “That’s part of the issue we want to talk to the Corps about, to look at a system basis,” Strain said.
The flooding and muddy fields could delay the end of the sugar cane harvest until January. Traditionally, farmers like to finish the harvest by Christmas Eve, Strain said.
Even with all the problems, Ken Gravois estimates the harvest will come close to its five-year average of about 1.4 to 1.5 million tons of raw sugar.
Farmers are optimistic about the rest of the sugar cane harvest if they get a break weather-wise, like a string of sunny clear days, or a strong north wind that blows rainfall out of flooded fields and back into the Gulf of Mexico.
“A little bit of blue sky and wind would go a long way,” Ken Gravois said.
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