High sugar prices – prompted, at least in part, by growing demand for “natural sweeteners” -- and a good 2010/2011 sugarcane harvest season have certainly improved Louisiana producers’ collective mood.

“This past harvest was completely different from the 2009/2010 crop,” says Blaine Viator, a veteran south Louisiana consultant in early February. “Then, we had one of the wettest harvests on record – probably the wettest since 2002. Unlike a lot of other sugarcane industries, we can’t stop our harvest when it’s wet. We’re up against the clock because we have to beat the freezes.”

In 2010, “we had record tonnage per acre of cane. Stalks had absorbed a lot of water. That, of course, adds weight but so did the excess mud and trash from the sloppy conditions.

“All that mud causes several problems. The main one, because of the mud and trash, is sugar content of the cane is reduced quite a bit. What happens is, even though there’s higher tonnage in a wet harvest, we see lower sugar content. Growers are paid by sugar-per-acre: the product of the total tons of cane times the sugar content per ton of cane.”

For the latest harvest, Viator says conditions made a sharp divergence from those a year earlier.

“We had a very dry harvest with lower cane weight, for the most part, and the tonnage per acre was down as a state average. However, because it was dry, we had very good sugar content per ton of cane.

“To me, the latest harvest is ideal. Although the tonnage was lower, the sugar content was higher and the actual sugar-per-acre was nearly identical to 2009/2010 as an industry average even though the two yield components were dramatically different.”

An easier harvest means growers “are able to spend much less money on repairing equipment, rutted fields, and turn-rows. They’re also able to finish harvesting earlier in the day. So, the overall cost of this harvest really dropped.”

One thing that came into play both in 2009/2010 and 2010/2011 crops was “consecutive abnormally cold winters in south Louisiana. We had several freezes in December 2009 and we’ve already had several this winter. One is going on as we speak.”

Stubble cane – the newly-emerging cane -- was a worry coming into this year’s crop. It was “slowed severely because of those hard freezes and a cool spring. We really didn’t start getting our cane growth until well into late April and May. Generally, the crop starts growing in late February and March. Luckily, even with the slow start, most of the cane did catch up.”