The nation’s sugar crop is expected to be down this year following a difficult growing season in Louisiana that was marred by extreme weather and flooding, as well as significant losses for sugar beet farms in northern states.

Louisiana cane farmers watched as rain fell, day after day, during a cooler spring. Then came a blistering hot and dry late summer that browned their fields right after Hurricane Barry swept through. An early frost forced some of them to replant their crops in the spring, then cut the growing season short when cold temperatures returned last week.

The weather, as well as a muddy harvesting season last year, could see the weight of sugar cane stocks drop and, potentially, fewer pounds of sugar mills extract compared to past years.

"It's just been a year of extreme circumstances," said John Hebert, agriculture division manager at the Louisiana Sugarcane Co-op in St. Martinville. "The only thing I can point to is that there were so many extreme environmental circumstances across most of the industry.”

Despite the likely drop in the weight of cane stocks, sugar farmers in Louisiana are faring far better than their counterparts up north.

Recent cold weather has ravaged farms in the upper Midwest, leading to one of the worst sugar beet harvests in decades in states like Minnesota and the Dakotas. Sugar beets account for roughly 25% of the nation's sugar production.

Those losses combined with a potential off year in Louisiana are contributing to a roughly half-million-ton drop in raw sugar produced this month across the country, federal officials predict.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to weigh options on how to make up for the loss, which might involve importing more sugar than had been brought in from other countries in past years.

The bad harvest likely won’t have much of an impact on prices people pay for food, though. Sugar has been selling at about 13 cents per pound on the commodity market in recent days, a low enough rate that enables companies to buy it elsewhere on the world market. 

Jim Simon, general manager of the American Sugar Cane League, which supports the state’s sugar industry, said it's possible cane farmers in the South could make up some of the difference in losses from beet farmers, but it's too early to know until after this year's harvest is processed. 

A USDA spokesman said the agency will make a decision before mid-December, but it’s not immediately clear what action they plan to take.

Louisiana farmers are still assessing the damage brought on by a recent cold snap that froze the ground in areas around the state, ending the planting season a few days earlier than last year.

Ken Gravois, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist, said the crop damage he’s observed ranges from field to field.

Despite lower tonnage of stalks, the amount of sugar that mills are able to grind out has been average to above-average compared to other years, he said.

"The biggest thing that'll dictate conditions will be the weather from here on out," Gravois said. “We might see some losses because of the freeze, but we don't expect those to be overly great.”

Pointe Coupee farmer Ricky Rivet said he, too, anticipates a lower tonnage this year.

Though the quality of his crop and the amount of sugar he’s able to extract is above average, he still expects a drop in weight in his cane stocks. He anticipates he’ll average about 32 tons compared to 40 tons last year.

"The crop is going to be a little below average, but the sugar is good," he said.

This year's lower yield should be manageable for most farmers, Hebert said.  Over the past few growing seasons Louisiana farmers have shattered records in the amount of sugar harvested, so they say an off year isn't likely to have many negative impacts to their businesses.

“It's certainly going to be difficult to manage, but the farmers that are in business today are in business because they've figured out how to manage these difficult times,” Hebert said. "I don't see this being catastrophic."

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Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com.