State raw sugar production marks record year

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Even though Louisiana’s weather can sometimes be fickle to farmers, winter weather patterns in late 2011 and early 2012 were certainly kind to those who plant and harvest sugarcane, making the 2012 harvest the best on record.

“Sugarcane harvested that year got to grow for 12 months instead of the usual six to eight months that those varieties grow,” said Mike Daigle, newly-elected American Sugarcane League president. “We didn’t have a frost that winter to knock it down, and the dry spring and wet, early summer also helped. Roots suckered that rain into their stalks and grew. It was the perfect storm for sugarcane.”

The wonderful weather allowed the state’s 489 farmers and 11 sugar mills to produce 1.71 million tons of raw sugar, 40,000 more tons than 1999’s record of 1.67 tons.

According to Daigle, there are five or six common varieties of sugarcane grown in the 23 Louisiana parishes, including the Tri-parishes, which make up the state’s sugar belt.

“Tri-parish farmers know how to grow sugarcane, and the land in the Tri-parish area is good for growing sugarcane,” Daigle said. “In south Louisiana, sugarcane is the only crop that we can grow commercially. It’s a tropical plant and can survive a hurricane. We tried corn, and rice and soybeans don’t do well with hurricanes either. Louisiana is also one of farthest places from the equator where sugarcane can still be grown.”

Daigle, of Thibodaux, can trace his know-how of the Louisiana sugarcane industry back six generations to the 1860s, and he carries on the family tradition today as the CEO of Lula-Westfield, which oversees the Lula Sugar Factory in Belle Rose and the Westfield Sugar Factory in Paincourtville. The company manages 20,000 acres of land that are leased out to sugarcane farmers. Daigle’s sugarcane expertise also landed him at the head of the 44-member board of ASLC directors, which he has been a member of since 1995. He is also a member of the ASCL Foundation Board and a former board chairman of the Louisiana Sugar Cane Products and Sugar Growers and Refiners, which he still serves on.

“Louisiana’s varieties of sugarcane are used to a short spring, and they can grow up to an inch a day during the summer,” he said. “Old folks used to tell me that you could hear the sugarcane growing during the summer.”

As ASCL president, Daigle will push for research for more sugarcane varieties as well as Congress to pass a five-year farm bill, which spells out the language by which the U.S. Department of Agriculture manages the sugarcane industry and supply and demand.

“We tried to get one passed last year, but it didn’t make it all the way through Congress last year,” Daigle said. “We got a one year extension instead, but we don’t want a year to year bill. That creates uncertainty with banks.”

On the local level, Daigle will cross his fingers that the state will see a wet summer, something that would again spell good things for the state’s sugarcane harvest.

“I don’t think that 2013’s crops will be as good as last year because of a frost we had a few weeks, but we will still have a good crop,” Daigle continued. “We had a dry spring, and, if we have a wet summer, we could do almost as good. We’re expecting to do 90 to 95 percent of last year’s harvest.”

While Daigle does not think that this year’s crops will be quite as good as last year, he is certain that the industry will stay stable, something he knows the state’s taxpayers and farmers will appreciate.

“The United States produces 80 percent of its sugar, and we have to import 20 percent,” Daigle said. “We have not cost the federal government money in 10 years, and last year’s harvest had an effect of more than $1 billion in direct revenue for the state. Once you add in the multiplier effect – farmers buying equipment and workers buying goods – that number has an even larger effect on the state’s economy.”

Even with the current low price cycle on sugarcane, Daigle’s optimistic outlook is backed by several other industry insiders.

“There is an oversupply on the market right now so I think we might see some reduced acreage,” said Jack Roney, director of economics and policy analysis for the American Sugar Alliance. “But that will take some time to see a market effect.”

According to the 2008 Farm Bill, the USDA must take a certain amount of raw sugar out of the food market and sell it to the ethanol market, possibly driving the price of raw sugar up again.

“As soon as buyers see the government moving in to reinforce the price, market psychology takes over and buyers won’t wait too long to make buying decisions,” he said. “A silver lining in the price right now is it takes the wind out of Big Candy’s argument that they have to have rock bottom sugar prices to survive. A dollar candy bar has two cents of sugar in it and candy companies argue they’re struggling because of high sugar prices.”

“The fact is that they’re expanding,” Roney continued. “I’m glad they’re doing well, but I’m tired of Big Candy going to Congress and saying they’re struggling because of sugar prices. It’s just not true and we have to get that point across.”

Like Daigle, Roney hopes that members of Louisiana’s sugarcane industry will be successful in lobbying Congress for the Farm Bill.

“You take a lot of time away from your farms and families to come and help us in Washington,” Roney said. “It really does make a difference.”

With everything looking to come up roses, ahem, sugarcane in Louisiana, one industry expert predicated that globalization, the rise of China and a growing world middle class could move all of the country’s forms of agriculture into a “Golden Age.”

“You’re (sugarcane farmers) part of an unbelievable age of agriculture,” said Jim Wiesemeyer, an agricultural policy expert with Informa Economics. “This is a down cycle right now, but you’re going to have a lot more up years than down.”

While Daigle and Roney monitor the progress of a possible five-year Farm Bill, Wiesemeyer advised that members of the county’s sugarcane industry keep a close watch on immigration reform, an issue that could benefit permanent agricultural workers and all agriculture industries.

“I just want to know which way they’re (Congress) going to go on seasonal workers, and I think that will determine the outcome of the reform,” he said. “Permanent workers are potential union members. Seasonal workers won’t join unions.”

The state’s 2012 raw sugar harvest was the highest on record. The state’s 489 farmers and 11 sugar mills to produce 1.71 million tons of raw sugar, 40,000 more tons than 1999’s record of 1.67 tons.