Cooler weather stunts sugarcane ahead of harvest

Sugarcane harvest season just a couple weeks away
Source: Graham Ulkins/WAFB
Source: Graham Ulkins/WAFB

PORT ALLEN, LA (WAFB) - It won't be long until sugarcane trucks will be seen on Louisiana's highways. Harvest season is just two weeks away, but the combination of an unusually cold spring and mild summer means this year's crop doesn't quite stack up against previous yields.

Bobby Morris owns 3,200 acres of farmland near Port Allen. He snapped a stalk of cane in half this week to check its progress, but the break was brittle, meaning his crop is a bit behind and a bit shorter than it should be right now.

"We're probably looking at least a foot difference right now," Morris said.

Grinding begins September 25 and Morris is hopeful the weather this fall will be more cooperative than this past spring.

"If we can get into harvest and get a good dry harvest, I think this crop is going to surprise us. It's hard to tell right now," Morris added.

Sugarcane hates cold weather and this year there has been plenty of it.

"January, February, March, April, even into May," said Kenneth Gravois, an LSU AgCenter researcher. "Even Jay Grymes will tell you that we had four cold fronts that passed in July and that's very unusual. Ninety-five, mid-90-degree daytime temps and mid-70 degrees at night - as uncomfortable as that is for us, that's what this crop really needs and we've only had that since August."

Gravois breeds sugarcane at the AgCenter's Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel. He's counting on a sweet silver lining to this year's stunted crop.

"The real plus side that we've seen on some preliminary data is our sugar concentrations seem to be pretty decent, considering the lack of growth that we've had," Gravois explained.

That's thanks in part to scientists. The varieties born in the research station's Crossing House are grown in all 22 cane-producing parishes. The plants are bred to become more tolerant of colder temperatures.

"We hang them in these cubicles," Gravois said pointing up at tall bays. "And, every morning at 8 o'clock, first thing in the morning, we just come and tap (the bays) and the male pollinates the female clone and that's how we get cross pollination."

With more competition from foreign markets, like Mexico, Louisiana farmers count on those new varieties to sustain their bottom line.

"We're pretty much getting the same price we got in the 80s and the price of fertilizer has gone up, price of chemicals gone up, fuel, labor costs are going up, so it's important that we get some higher prices in here," Morris added.

Morris Farms will likely break even in 2014, then hope for a warmer winter and spring. The farm expects to harvest for 85 days this year.

From 2009 to 2012, farmers got about 30 cents per pound for their sugar. But last year, the price dropped to 21 cents. This year, it's expected to hover around 25 cents, Gravois said.

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