ST. GABRIEL — In a sense, two new sugar cane varieties announced at a public gathering this week were more than a century in the making.

The crossbred cane, developed at LSU's sugar research station in St. Gabriel and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's station in Houma, started as experimental seedlings among thousands of others years ago. Long-sought attributes like sweetness and resistance to disease brought them to market.

They don't quite beat out the current superstar variety of sugar cane named L 01-299 (which stands for LSU; the year 2001, when it was given a name; and a numeral designation) that's prized for its sweetness, high yields and resistance to brown rust disease.

"Right now, 299 is the best variety out there, but the two new ones do beat 299 in some areas," said Michael Pontif, a research assistant professor at St. Gabriel, told farmers who gathered to hear about the new varieties Wednesday.

L 12-201 produces large-sized stalks and is sweeter than 299, Pontif said. Ho 12-615 (named for the USDA research station in Houma) has medium-sized stalks, good sugar per acre and, like its fellow new variety, is more resistant than 299 to the plant diseases, smut and brown stripe.

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Herman Waguespack, left, senior agronomist with the American Sugar Cane League, and sugarcane breeder James Todd, Ph.D., right, a research geneticist with the USDA/Agricultural Research Service's Sugarcane Research Unit, talk about two new sugarcane varieties of sugar cane highlighted at the 37th annual Sugarcane Field Day, Wednesday, July 17, 2019 at the LSU AgCenter's Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel.

Both new varieties are hard to handle, too, Pontif said.

"There are hairs all up and down the stalk," he said. "You don't want to grab it. They will lacerate your hand. It will hurt; wear gloves."

Farmers from seven area parishes came for that and other practical information at the LSU AgCenter's research station, situated on nearly 600 acres off La. 30 in St. Gabriel.

Ozane Gravois, who farms 2,600 acres of sugar cane in St. James Parish, said he plans on obtaining some of the two new varieties this year. The majority of his farm, he said, is currently planted with the well-liked L 01-299, which was released for commercial production in 2009.

"The older ones kind of peter out for some reason or another, lose vigor," Gravois said. "About 15 to 20 years is a good run for a variety."

Since the early 1900s, LSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with sugar cane farmers, have worked to continuously develop new varieties. Last year, sugar cane was grown in 24 parishes, producing more than 1.8 million tons of raw sugar and creating a $3 billion economic impact in the state.

"Sugar cane is a tropical crop," Herman Waguespack, senior agronomist with the American Sugar Cane League, said last week. "Over the years we've bred varieties with good cold tolerance that will do well in this less-than-tropical environment."

More than 60 variations have come to market through those efforts over the last century, Waguespack said, but farmers — who regularly plant more than one variety in their fields, taking advantages of each variety's strengths — currently rely on eight varieties.

"We're always trying to be one step ahead of plant disease, insects and weeds," he said.

The first step in breeding a new sugar cane variety is to harvest a sugar cane seed, even though each year's crop isn't grown from seed.

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A tractor pulling a trailer loaded with farmers and others embarks on a tour of fields at the 37th annual Sugarcane Field Day, Wednesday, July 17, 2019 at the LSU AgCenter's Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel.

It's grown commercially from pieces of stalk about 12 inches long, called seed cane, that are planted from late summer to early fall; harvest begins the following fall. One planting of seed cane will bring crops for the next three or four years.

In Louisiana, sugar cane rarely flowers and produces seed in the field, although it does both in tropical climates.

"We have to coax the varieties into going into flower" by artificially decreasing daylight for the plants, Waguespack said. 

Seed cane is planted in pots in the spring at the Sugar Research Station and kept in a greenhouse until the cane has grown fairly tall. Then, in the first part of July, the plants are moved to rail cars in another building and rolled out into the sunlight each day, for a period of time that is gradually decreased — by about a minute a day — until the sugar cane plants flower in October, Waguespack said.

The tiny flowers of the sugar cane grow on tassels at the top of the plant and, once they're there, researchers can begin cross-pollinations to produce seeds that, it is hoped, will lead to a new variety, a process that takes several years. 

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Sugarcane seed, or 'fuzz' as it is referred to for its hairy appearance, this variety from the family tree that produced one of the two new sugarcane varieties highlighted at the 37th annual Sugarcane Field Day, seen in the hand of LSU AgCenter Professor Collins Kimbeng, Ph.D., Wednesday, July 17, 2019 at the AgCenter's Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel. Sugarcane is harvested before the plant goes to flower and make seeds, so new crops are generally planted from 'seed pieces' or 'billets,' which are 2- to 3-foot-long sections of stalk.

Each year, LSU and the USDA crossbreed approximately 200,000 seedlings in the quest for a new, superior variety.

"If you get one variety from those 200,000 every year, you're doing good," Waguespack said. 

At Wednesday's event, Atticus Finger, an agronomist with the American Sugar Cane League, said that farmers, who buy seed cane at a cost of about $60 per ton, will be able to request how much of the two new varieties they want. The growers will be directed to farmers in their area who help in the research by providing acreage on their farms for new varieties.

Speaking to the farmers in St. Gabriel on Wednesday, Finger said, "If you're wondering which variety to try, the answer is both."

Editor's note: This article was changed on Saturday, July 19, 2019, to correct the name spelling of Michael Pontif of the LSU AgCenter.

Email Ellyn Couvillion at ecouvillion@theadvocate.com.