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AgCenter expert: Sugarcane acreage likely to rise in 2019

Posted at 10:16 AM, Feb 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-16 11:16:05-05

NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Sugar cane is on the rise in Louisiana, with a good crop and decent prices encouraging more farmers to plant the tall tropical grass.

Stable sugar prices and a resilient crop are big reasons, LSU AgCenter sugar cane expert Kenneth Gravois said Wednesday.

In spite of a soggy harvest season, he said, the 2018 crop set records for tons of cane sent to mills and tons of sugar produced. And prices have been about 26 cents a pound (0.45 kilogram) for raw sugar, he said.

Joe Denais, whose farm is in the Vermilion Parish community of Andrew, said he used to plant mostly rice, but prices of $16 per 162-pound (73.5-kilogram) barrel prompted him to cut back on rice and expand his sugar cane fields.

“It was hard to make money at $16 unless I started crawfish farming,” he said – many farmers double-crop rice and crawfish. “I decided to go to cane instead of crawfish because everybody’s getting into crawfish now,” Denais said.

Denais, who started farming at age 18 with 100 acres (40 hectares) in 1994, said he has increased his sugar cane fields from 1,900 to 4,700 acres (770 to 1,900 hectares) over the past few years. Now 43, he hopes to plant up to 1,800 new acres of sugar cane this year, if he can buy 500 acres to go with 1,300 he already owns.

Gravois said farmers harvested 459,000 acres (185,750 hectares) of cane between late September and mid-January, both for harvest and for seed cane. That’s 19,000 acres (nearly 7,700 hectares) more than the previous season.

“Will we have that much of an increase this year? We don’t know. But we are increasing,” Gravois said.

Louisiana generally has a bit more land planted in sugar cane than Florida. However, because Florida’s growing area is farther south and its growing season longer, it generally produces more sugar. Texas is far behind; Hawaii’s last sugar cane harvest was in 2016.

Sugar beets, grown in the North and West, produce about 55 percent of the nation’s sugar, according to The Sugar Association, a lobbying group.

The state produced a record 1.84 million tons (1.67 metric tons) of sugar from the 2018 crop, beating the previous record, set just a year earlier, by 20,000 tons (18,000 metric tons). The previous record for tons of cane was just under 16 million (14.5 metric tons) in 1999.

Last year’s acreage included 424,000 acres (about 171,600 hectares) harvested for milling; the rest either was kept as seed cane or couldn’t be harvested because the fields were too muddy for the heavy equipment required.

Gravois said acreage is expanding mostly to the north and west, in Pointe Coupee, St. Landry, Avoyelles, Vermilion and Rapides parishes. He noted that sugar yields have more than doubled over the past 50 years, largely because of new varieties developed at LSU, the U.S. Department of Agriculture research unit in Houma, and elsewhere.

The 1970s yield was about 4,000 pounds (1,800 kilograms) of sugar per acre. In the past two years, the yield was about 8,800 pounds (4,000 kilograms) of sugar per acre, Gravois said.

And while one planting generally used to provide three crops, that’s now up to four and sometimes five, letting farmers plant less seed cane each year, Gravois said.