Sugarcane farmers: Prices greater problem than freeze
A scene from the sugarcane harvest in St. Mary Parish this year. (The Daily Review Photo By Courtney Darce)
The American Sugarcane League is telling farmers that, despite a late-November freeze, the remainder of the harvest season can be managed as farmers and mills work together in implementing steps to reduce the impact of deterioration from stalk damage where it occurred.
Jim Simon, league director, said that after a Dec. 2 assessment by a group of experts, Louisiana sugar cane farmers have been told that despite most of the cane remaining in Louisiana fields receiving some sort of damage, there are things they can do to minimize the impact of the freeze and there should be time remaining in the harvest season to harvest most of the sugar.
Farmers may have dodged a bullet with the early freeze but what still remains as a problem to all the farmers throughout the state is the prices they are getting, Simon said.
“This will probably be a difficult year financially for farmers and probably next year, too,” Simon said. Farmers are expecting the season to be a break-even season financially, which makes last season’s bumper crop all the more fortuitous, he said.
The league has told farmers that harvest plans should be adjusted because of the brief period of freezing weather with the affected cane becoming the top priority of the harvest. While the freeze happened early in this year’s harvest, it did not last long nor was it much below freezing, even in northern areas of the state. Those conditions made the freeze less damaging than it would have been with lower temperatures and longer exposures to sub-freezing weather.
The league points out that freeze damage is worse in cane that has been cut and is down and that low-lying areas are more susceptible to freeze damage.
Growers were encouraged to do a field-by-field survey to determine the extent of freeze damage on their farms. Mills were encouraged to give priority to processing the more damaged or affected cane first before deterioration makes the cane unmarketable. Growers were encouraged to adjust their harvesting methods and try to remove as much of the leafy material as possible as the drying leaves add considerable fiber to the cane reducing factory quality.
After the group, composed of league agronomists, LSU researchers, consultants and others, surveyed fields throughout the state it was determined that sugar cane below Interstate 10 and along Bayou Teche appeared to have little damage to the stalks with mostly top kill to the plant.
Mike Accardo, a Patterson sugar cane farmer, said sugar mills have told him that while they are prioritizing cane processing for farmers most affected by the freeze, the situation is not as dire as had been feared. He also said the crop in St. Mary Parish fared well from the short-term cold-weather event.
“You don’t like to see cold this early in the year,” Accardo said. “But, the Thanksgiving freeze doesn’t look like it was as bad as we thought at first.”
Despite the view of brown leaves covering sugar cane fields, the stalks in the parish are mostly in good condition, Accardo said.
Simon and Accardo appear more concerned about the prices farmers are getting for their sugar cane than the affect the short-term freeze has had on the harvest.
Last year, farmers harvested a near record tonnage of sugar cane and were paid about 28 cents a pound. This year with a significantly decreased crop the price is expecting to be a nickel or more lower, Accardo said.
“Lower tonnage and lower prices are not good for farmers. I hope we can break even but I don’t know,” Accardo said. “And the 2014 prices are not looking like they will be too good either.”
Imported cane from Mexico cannot be restricted or subject to tariffs because of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the supply from Mexico has depressed U.S. prices, Accardo said.
Simon said U.S. farmers are trying to work with Mexican officials, who subsidize Mexican sugar prices, in an effort to limit the impact of importing of Mexican sugar into the States. But any solutions to low prices will not be seen soon, he said.
“When prices fall there is no magic wand to fix it quickly,” Simone said.