Sugar yielding high content, low crop weight

Pitch with the pros at Kemper Williams Park in Patterson
October 21, 2015
52nd State Representative District to choose between 2
October 21, 2015

One month into the fall harvest, sugar farmers are reaping sweeter than average sugar cane, but due to unusual rainfall patterns this year, total crop weight is lower than average.

It’s still too early to tell what the season will hold for the sugar industry in the Bayou Region, though, and local farmers still expect an average to better than average sugar yield this year.

Sugar farmers have begun harvesting the weakest cane first that which has been replanted three or four times already and yields less sugar per ton than younger cane and are finding it sweeter than average.

That cane is an indicator that farmers can use to predict what the bulk of the crop will end up yielding.

But it is still too early to make definitive predictions of the final yield the 2015 harvest will have, said Wallace Ellender III, a fourth-generation sugar farmer who’s great-great-grandfather established Ellender Farms in Bourg during 1853. He likened making predictions this early on to calling a baseball game in the first inning. As of today, he is 15 days into the harvest and still has 75 to 85 days of cutting cane to go. He still said he remains “cautiously optimistic.”

The reason for the low weight this year is because the region experienced high rainfall during the spring and an unusually dry summer.

“The growing season this year has been a little different. It’s not been ideal but it’s been OK,” said James H. Simon, general manager of the Thibodaux-based American Sugar Cane League. “We usually like to have a dry spring and a wet summer and this year we’ve had just the opposite: we’ve had a wet spring and a dry summer.”

Simon said the burgeoning sugarcane shoots out more roots during a dry spring seeking water. Ideally, he added, farmers want the crops to receive a higher amount of rain during the summer when the stalks are growing the fastest.

“Like any other plant, if it doesn’t get water, it doesn’t grow,” said state Sen. Robert “Brett” Allain, who is a sugar farmer in Jeanerette, La. “… But the sugar seems to be good and the price seems to be a little bit above what it was last year, so I think we’ll be fine.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average price paid to U.S. sugarcane farmers in September was 24.21 cents per pound, a slight bit more than the 24.15 cent average in 2014.

That increase is hardly enough to compensate for the price swoon American sugar farmers have experienced since the historically high prices of 2011 when raw sugar averaged more than 38 cents a pound. Compared to then, September’s average price for a pound of the sweet stuff is 36 percent lower, according to USDA figures.

Brazil is the world’s top sugar producer in the world and their ability to flood the world sugar market isn’t going to be abated anytime soon. Record levels of production in Brazil along with the near collapse of their currency has flooded the world market with cheap sugar.

According to a report released this month by the Intercontinental Exchange, the network of commodities exchange markets which sets the benchmark price for sugar, Brazil’s sugar mills have such a large harvest this year that they should continue crushing cane “past the normal end date of the harvest in December” and “some even believe there is so much cane this year that the 2015-16 season could run straight into 2016-17 with crushing not ending until February and then new season starting up early and so there would be no break of any sort between the two crop years.”

Ellender recently returned from Brazil where he saw first-hand what the world’s sugarcane farmers have to compete with.

“They actually cut by hand more acreage of sugarcane in Brazil than we produce between Florida and Louisiana,” he said. “Now you couldn’t do that in America. You couldn’t find the labor to do it and you couldn’t pay; I don’t know what, they’re paying them.”

The USDA places limits on the amount of sugar that can be imported into the U.S. without paying a tariff and only allows up to 15 percent of the nation’s total consumption of sugar to be imported. This results in higher prices for sugar in America than the rest of the world, but protects the domestic sugar industry. •

Wallace Ellender III, a fourth-generation sugar farmer whose great-great-grandfather established Ellender Farms in Bourg during 1853, inspects a stalk of sugar cane on his farm.