Amid inclement weather, weaker sugar recovery and less than ideal field conditions, Louisiana's sugar cane crop and its farmers are holding strong and may even break last year's harvesting record.
Specialists with the LSU Agricultural Center are predicting a yield of more than 16 million tons of sugar, despite sugar recovery from each ton of cane being down from 2017. Sugar cane specialist Kenneth Gravois said he is optimistic that this year's crop will still be strong.
"We have a tremendously good crop out there," Gravois said. "We could beat the record crop we had last year. That's really, really good."
Estimates put the sugar per ton of cane at around the 15-year average of 220 pounds per ton, down from last year's record of 246 pounds per ton. However, if the estimates of 16 million tons from 427,000 harvested acres proves true, then the total sugar production should be near or over last year's production of 1.82 million total tons of sugar.
Officials with the Thibodaux-based American Sugar Cane League also are predicting a strong season. General manager Jim Simon said preharvest estimates were not looking good but farmers were able to make up a lot of ground in August and September despite the inclement weather and poor conditions it caused in the fields.
"This year's crop is hard to harvest," Simon said. "Rainy and muddy conditions have made it hard on the fields and more expensive because of equipment breakdowns. It's just a mess in the fields right now, getting cane out."
The rains also caused problems such as fallen stalks, which can still be harvested but are harder for sugar mills because the mud must be removed when the cane is processed into raw sugar.
The rutting of fields also will make next year's planting harder as farmers will have to work harder to get the land back into shape. Some also are not able to plant until the fields dry out, and weed control in the fields has become more challenging because the frequent rainfall has complicated herbicide application.
According to Blair Hebert, LSU AgCenter sugar cane agent for Acadia, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Martin, St. Mary and Vermilion parishes, the rainy weather has been frustrating to farmers, as leading into the mid-November cold front, farmers had only 10 good days of harvesting out of the past 45 days.
The cold snap brought more dry days and did not affect the crop because the temperature did not fall below 26 degrees, the point when cane stalks break open, allowing microorganisms to enter the plant and cause damage.
The AgCenter had projected that area sugar mills would be grinding until Jan. 5-7, but that estimate has been extended to Jan. 10-15.
"We're only about 65 percent finished with the harvest," Simon said. "We won't be able to give a good estimate until we're closer to being finished in mid-January. We could get a severe freeze that could really mess us all up. It's a good crop as it stands right now, but we still have a ways to go."
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