Sugar growers expect crop to dip from 2012 record

 

JANET McCONNAUGHEY, Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana's sugar farmers don't expect a repeat of last year's record crop but are looking for an average harvest in spite of a chilly spring. And, as trucks laden with up to 30 tons of sugar cane lumber down the highways, billboards warning other drivers to watch out are sprouting around sugar country.

"We harvest in any type of weather," said Mike Daigle, president of the American Sugar Cane League, which is putting out eight stationary and five moveable billboards. The message, he said, is, "It's harvest season. Be careful. Don't try to pass, especially on curves. Realize they are driving slow because they're carrying the weight."

Including truck and trailer, each weighs up to 50 tons. Mill scales stop at 100,000 pounds to enforce that limit, league spokesman Sam Irwin said.

"The farmer knows not to overfill those things, because he won't get paid" for any excess, Irwin said.

Louisiana and Florida together produce at least 90 percent of the nation's sugar cane; a longer season helps Florida produce a bit more than Louisiana. Because of the possibility of a winter freeze, Louisiana farmers finish by Christmas or early January, while Florida and Texas have until March or April, Daigle said.

Last year's record Louisiana crop was refined into 1.7 million tons of raw sugar, while Florida had nearly 1.9 million tons. This year, Florida is expected to produce about 1.8 million tons and Louisiana about 1.6 million, according to the American Sugar Alliance. Texas is expected to produce 140,000 tons, down 17 percent from last year, and Hawaii about 180,000 tons, up 1 percent.

The chilly spring, including a freeze in early March, left Louisiana's canes shorter and holding less sugar than usual but there are a lot of stalks per acre to make up for it, said Kenneth Gravois of the LSU AgCenter's Sugarcane Research Station in St. Gabriel.

"I think it's a little bit better than everybody expected," he said.

Mills are reporting about 190 to 200 pounds of sugar per ton of cane — about average — and from about 25 to nearly 30 tons of cane per acre. He called that "good for a start."

"We always harvest our oldest crops first, and they tend to be the lowest producing."

Daigle, who owns two of Louisiana's 11 sugar mills, said his Lula mill in Belle Rose and his Westfield mill in Paincourtville get a total of 900 to 1,000 truckloads of cane over 12 hours every day, starting at 6 a.m.

As of Wednesday, he said, they averaged 188 pounds of sugar per ton of cane — the same figure as on Oct. 8 last year.

The cane has been a bit muddy but manageable — even though the remnants of Tropical Storm Karen brought only a little rain to south Louisiana, the ground hadn't dried from earlier storms, he said.

Prices have fallen to about 21 to 22 cents per pound of raw sugar after about three years in the upper 20s, so "enthusiasm isn't what it was on total dollars," said Mike Melancon, of Henderson, who farms about 2,600 acres of sugar.

"But hopefully yields and a good harvest season will help offset the lower price. Good weather and better conditions create less cost in the field — less fuel, less manpower," said Melancon, vice president of the league.

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