ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) - One of the world's northernmost sugarcane fields has been planted at a Louisiana State University research station in central Louisiana. The LSU AgCenter is looking into how well various varieties can survive chilly weather.
The Dean Lee Research and Extension Center is generally considered too far north for the tall tropical grass. However, steady yields and prices have prompted some Louisiana farmers to push the limits, planting sugarcane in what has traditionally been corn and soybean country, an AgCenter news release said.
One farmer is growing sugarcane a few miles south in the Lecompte area.
There's little data to indicate which varieties can best withstand central Louisiana's deeper, more frequent freezes. So the AgCenter is working to get such information on eight varieties, some commercially available and some still experimental. It's important because one planting can grow three to five crops.
AgCenter scientists planted the field Aug. 14, dropping chunks of cane into furrows.
Local sugarcane producers asked for the research, said Rogers Leonard, AgCenter associate vice president. The nonprofit American Sugar Cane League is paying for the study.
"This is a farmer-driven project," AgCenter sugarcane specialist Kenneth Gravois said. "The cold tolerance work will augment ongoing work in variety testing and weed control work done by Dr. (Al) Orgeron," an AgCenter pest management specialist.
Sugar is looking attractive to Louisiana farmers because the federal price support program keeps prices of domestic raw sugar above prices for imports and the state's recent crops have been good. In addition, the trade war with China has severely cut the market for soybeans, while big corn crops in the Midwest have cut corn prices in recent years, AgCenter agricultural economist Mike Deliberto said in an interview.
Last year's harvest produced records in tons of cane brought to the mill and in sugar milled from that cane, though the acreage farmed was not a record.
That successful harvest prompted more planting: preliminary figures indicate Louisiana farmers have 482,000 acres (195,000 hectares) in sugarcane this year, Gravois said in a text message Thursday. That's up about 23,000 acres (9,300 hectares) from last year, an increase even larger than one last year.
Although Louisiana generally has a bit more land planted in sugarcane than Florida, it generally produces less sugar because its growing area is farther north and its growing season shorter. Texas is far behind; Hawaii's last sugarcane 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.
Local data will help the expanding group of central Louisiana sugarcane growers, American Sugar Cane League agronomist Herman Waguespack said in the news release.
"They would like to have a little bit more information based on their soil types and their environment," he said. "Freeze tolerance and cold tolerance is a very important trait for us."