Cane harvest is promising in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana
By PRESTON GILL
Sugar is sweet to the palate and usually sweet to Louisiana and St. Mary Parish farmers who are gearing up to begin harvesting the 2013 crop. The verdict is still out on how sweet it will be to farmers in 2013.
Farmers and mills are expecting high tonnage this year but an LSU professor says a 20 percent drop from last year’s prices will impact the profitability of the crop this year.
Mike Salassi, a professor in the agricultural economics department of the LSU AgCenter in Baton Rouge, said the 21 cents a pound that raw brown sugar is selling for is near the cost of production. That price is down from last year’s 26- to 27-cents a pound.
Sam Irvin, public relations director of the American Sugar Cane League, said last year’s bumper crop produced 3.3 billion pounds of sugar from 14.4 million tons of harvested cane. Louisiana’s big crop mirrored the production of cane in Florida and Hawaii as well. Along with 2012 record-setting sugar beet production in the Midwest, last year’s production put much more sugar on the market than anticipated, he said.
Salassi said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture controls sugar imports and it underestimated the U.S. market production. In April the USDA increased the amount of foreign sugar allowed into the country, depressing prices further, he said.
Lower prices are good for candy-makers and others who lobby hard for increased foreign sugar, but not good for farmers who are being paid 1980s prices, Salassi said.
David Thibodeaux, general manager of the St. Mary Sugar Cooperative in Jeanerette, said depressed prices are hurting farmers as well as the mills, especially smaller operations.
“It is crazy,” Thibodeaux said. “We are dealing in 1980 prices but the price of production and everything else has gone up.”
LSU AgCenter sugar cane specialist Kenneth Gravois said crop options for farmers are limited.
“Farmers save their money in the good years in the hopes that they can survive during the lean years,” Gravois said. This year looks like a lean year, he said.
The success of last year’s crop harvest followed on the heels of a successful 2011 harvest. The last two years saw prices and profitability like many farmers have never seen, Gravois said.
The value of the 2011 cane crop in St. Mary Parish soared to more than $61 million, a 40 percent increase over 2010, Gravois said. With record tonnage last year and almost record sugar content, the value to parish farmers and mills increased another 6 percent to almost $65 million, he said.
Mike Accardo, a Patterson farmer, said he is expecting a good crop this year but a late-winter mild freeze will keep the 2013 production below last year’s. A March freeze slowed plant growth, he said.
“We have a good crop but we won’t make the same tonnage of last year,” Accardo said.
Accardo is not so optimistic on the profitability of the crop this year.
“With the sugar prices where they are, we will be lucky to break even,” he said.
Farmers will be helped by another year of high tonnage, Gravois said.
“We had a really, really high-potential crop until the late freeze put the crop behind,” Gravois said. “But it was a good summer,” he added. “Even though the plants in the fields are shorter than normal, populations seem to be high.”
This year’s crop will produce yields within the average of the past five year and the state is in the midst of the highest five-year yield average in history, Gravois said.
The annual harvest of the past five years has averaged 1.4 million tons in Louisiana. There was a record, 1.7 million tons harvested in 2012, the researcher said.
During the past two years cane production tonnage, sugar content and profitability did well statewide. The value of the harvest was about $1 billion, Salassi said. He said the 250 to 300 percent economic multipliers in the agricultural industry means that the crop had about a $3 billion impact on the state economy.
Thibodeaux said his mill took over a billion tons of cane last year and produced 250 million pounds of sugar. The mill produced 235 pounds of sugar per ton of cane last year, he said.
Jesse Breaux, a cane farmer from Sorrel, said “This year’s crop looks promising. I think we will have a good crop.”
Harvest will begin when the first mills start next week on Sept. 24, and all 11 will be operating by Oct. 8. That’s the start of an 80- to 100-day harvest that runs seven days a week until it ends. The two St. Mary Parish mills begin operating next month. The St. Mary Sugar Cooperative starts accepting cane on Oct. 3 and Sterling Sugar in Franklin begins on Oct. 7.
“With high stalk populations, growers should have a good year as long as the plants stay erect and growing and getting good sunlight,” Gravois said he added. “From here on out, the yield depends on weather.”
Growers hope to avoid hurricanes or other tropical storms between now and the end of harvest. Gravois said sugar cane takes from seven to 10 days to recover from a storm that knocks the stalks down.
Sugar cane by the numbers
3 billion pounds — annual Louisiana production of sugar.
427,000 — acres of land in Louisiana under cane production.
47,000 — acres of land in St. Mary Parish under cane production.
23 — parishes that produce sugar cane.
80 to 100 — days in a typical harvest season.
$65 million — value of the 2013 cane harvest in St. Mary Parish.
1751 — year sugar cane arrived in Louisiana with the Jesuit priests who planted it near where their church now stands on Baronne Street in New Orleans.
1795 — year Etienne deBore first granulated sugar on a commercial scale in Audubon Park.