After nearly five years of hard times for sugarcane farmers, this year's crop looks like it will be much better than the crops of the past few years, according to LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Ben Legendre.

“After three consecutive years of diminishing yields since 2002, following Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lilli, it appears that the 2006 crop will be comparable to the better crops of 1997 through 2001 — not a record crop like the one of 1999, but a near normal crop with average sugarcane yields of 32 tons to 33 tons,” Legendre said.

Rene Schmit, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Charles Parish, said this year's crop is equal to and in some cases higher than last year's when it comes to quality, which is measured by the sucrose level of the crop.

“I'm not saying that we have a record-breaking crop this year, but we do have on average a much taller, thicker-barreled, higher-population crop for the 2006 harvest season,” he said. Legendre said growers will harvest nearly 425,000 acres of sugarcane.

A good 2006 crop will help sugarcane farmers out the financial rut that the bad years have caused, he said. The expenses of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides — in addition to equipment — make it extremely tough on growers when the yield is low.

Some costs, like the cost of harvesting equipment, are unique to Louisiana because in other sugarcane-producing states like Florida and Texas, they are absorbed by the mills and cooperatives.

“Today, the cost of a new combine is about $250,000. And then you need about three wagons, which cost $30,000 each, plus three tractors at $70,000 each. So these costs are making it really hard on our smaller growers,” Legendre said.

Schmit said the reduced cash flow of the past five years is just one of the reasons that some farmers are getting out of the business.

“In addition to the bad economic situation that growers have faced, some have been forced out by landlords selling land to developers,” Schmit said, “As the land goes, whether to residential developments, business or industry, so will go the Louisiana sugarcane industry and the sugarcane farmer.”

These and other issues are always on the mind of Legendre, who has the responsibility of taking information from the LSU AgCenter researchers and relaying that information to the LSU AgCenter county agents. They in turn present the information to the farmers through personal contacts, grower meetings and field days.

He said the official numbers are not out yet for how many sugarcane farmers left the business during the past year, but he estimates the number to be somewhere around 25.

Legendre said there are about 700 sugarcane farmers in the state and each year there's normally a loss of five to 10 growers either to retirement or because it's not profitable any longer.