The winds having died down, many in south Louisiana thought Hurricane Rita had been weathered. They relaxed, some went to bed. Then, all at once, a surge of saltwater rolled in.

In Vermilion Parish, a wall of water between 8 and 12 feet high rushed through. It smashed into everything and covered the land all the way up to Erath, La., a small city just south of New Iberia.

“We’ve been in some bad storms, but I’ve never seen that kind of devastation before,” said Ben Legendre, Louisiana Extension sugarcane specialist. “This wave — a tidal surge — came in and spread out. Those who didn’t experience the initial wave were hit with the spreading aftereffects. The water came in from the Gulf of Mexico through Vermilion Bay and Terrebonne Bay. It was, essentially, a mini-tsunami.”

The water came in with such force it destroyed homes — “brick homes, trailers, whatever” — and everything in its wake. The water moved houses as much as 3,000 feet.

“We had homes that were moved into the middle of cane fields. When the wave came in it brought marsh grass, reeds and all kinds of trash — trampolines, telephone poles, acetylene bottles, whatever could be carried from homes.”

Massive debris fields were left over 5,000 to 7,000 acres.

“If you look at it from overhead — and I flew over the area with the Minnesota National Guard three days after the storm — some fields were 50 percent covered with 3 feet of debris. It looked like a river of trash running through the cane acreage. Those fields won’t be harvestable this year.”

One grower, eager to clear his cane fields, drove a loader into the twisted mess. In short order two of the loader’s tires were ruined.

“Those tires are better than $1,000 a piece,” said Legendre. “He left it alone after that.”

Besides cane, Vermilion Parish also holds rice and cattle. When Rita arrived, much of the rice had been harvested. Some of the cattle weren’t so lucky.

“When I flew over the area, there were dead cows everywhere. There were dead horses and deer, too. It was unbelievable, the amount of dead wildlife floating around.”

Some 30,000 acres of sugarcane was beneath 8 to 10 feet of water. Around 12,000 acres of that were newly planted. In many of those fields, the cane isn’t salvageable. Much of the seed cane is rotting because of the impact of high water and salt.

The standing cane inundated by saltwater and not hit by debris appears to be harvestable. However, it will hold less sugar and less tonnage.

“It’s like with any crop: if fields are flooded, you’ll lose seed. Sugarcane is hardier than other crops, but not with weeks of floodwaters on it.”

Rebound year

This was supposed to be a rebound year for Louisiana cane producers.

“Things were finally looking up again and then the bottom fell out.”

In 2002, the state sugar industry was also hit by two hurricanes: Isidore and Lily. 2002 was also one of the wettest years on record. With the two storms and later rains, nearly 40 inches of rain fell on south Louisiana over three harvest months. Damaged cane was mudded out at great expense.

Following Isidore and Lily, some $60 million in federal disaster relief was provided for the region, about half what the damage cost.

A year later, the hurricanes’ residual effects began to show. Yields dropped from 33 tons per acre in 2002 to about 30 tons in 2003. And the residuals kept coming: last year, the state average dropped to 27 tons per acre.

So even before the latest set of hurricanes, “our farmers’ cash flow was very, very poor,” said Legendre. “For the first time in years we had many growers who declared bankruptcy. Other growers came into the 2005 season on the bubble — without a good 2005 crop, they were going to get out of the business.

“Now, we’ve got to deal with everything (Katrina and Rita) brought. Yields will be down after it was estimated we’d have a 30-ton crop. In many areas, yields are now below 20 tons per acre. The efficiency of harvesting is way down.”

Cropping cane

Grown by 700 producers, there are about 465,000 acres of sugarcane in southern Louisiana. In terms of value, sugarcane is the number one row crop for the state. In 2004, at the first processing level, cane netted $510 million.

Sugarcane has been grown in the state for over 200 years. Louisiana is responsible for approximately 16 percent of the sugar produced in the United States. Last year, the state produced about 1.2 million tons of sugar from 11.5 million tons of cane.

Unlike other row crops, sugarcane is a perennial and planted from cuttings. An acre of cane has 35,000 to 55,000 stalks. Those stalks serve as seed.

“In other words, you don’t plant seed, you plant the vegetative cutting like you would with an Irish potato,” said Legendre.

The planting of cane usually takes place in August and September to insure enough growth to survive the winter. The eyes on the stalks germinate and grow up to 3 feet tall before being killed back by the first frost in late December/early January.

“We typically plant about 5 acres for every acre of seed cane. Of every acre of standing cane in August, we can mechanically plant 5 to 6 acres. Hand-planting can mean 8 to 10 acres for every acre of seed cane.”

Freezes in south Louisiana aren’t sufficient to penetrate below ground level, so cane buds below ground will re-sprout in late February/early March. A fresh cane crop can be harvested annually for the next three or four years, sometimes stretching to six.

Hurricanes arrive

The recent hurricanes — Katrina on Aug. 29 and Rita two weeks later — occurred during the sugarcane planting season just before harvest.

“The hurricanes flattened the crop, lodged it. A stalk of cane is between 6 and 8 feet tall. After the hurricanes, the crop is about 6 inches tall because it’s all on the ground. When that happens, the planting equipment does a poor job. It’s almost impossible to plant by hand in those circumstances because the stalks are tangled up.”

The cost of planting has increased dramatically. Faced with planting into a lodged crop, most farmers cut seed cane into sharp pieces between 6 inches and 24 inches long. This makes planting easier but requires more seed. Instead of a ratio of 5.5 acres for every acre of seed, they get only 3 acres.

For sugar purposes, a ton of cane is valued about $40. “A producer who has to increase planting rates from 6 tons to 8, 9 or 10 tons, has increased seed costs by $160. The hurricanes immediately increased planting costs. When Katrina hit, we believe 50 percent of the crop was yet to be planted. After Rita, between 20 and 30 percent was yet to be planted.”

Legendre has been crunching numbers since Katrina hit. “I found about 10 percent of the stalks in the field were broken or uprooted. About 150,000 acres were severely lodged. Another 150,000 acres were lodged but not flat as a pancake. Another 150,000 acres were minimally damaged by Katrina.”

Then, two weeks later, Rita arrived. Almost every stalk that had withstood Katrina was smacked down by Rita, which hit the western and central part of the state.

“Now, we’re looking at better than $280 million in either losses or increased costs in harvesting. That’s stunning.”

Salt and assistance

The American Sugarcane League — the commodity group that represents Louisiana sugar — has taken this data to Washington, D.C. “Our entire congressional delegation also knows these figures and is in the process of writing legislation that will hopefully bring us some type of federal assistance, as in 2002,” said Legendre. “And 2002 was nothing compared to the hurricanes this year. In 2002, our total losses were about $120 million. This year, losses are well over twice that. The Louisiana sugar industry is in dire straits financially.”

The LSU AgCenter has also jumped into the fray. “As we speak, we have Extension agents traveling to parishes hit by the saltwater incursion. The entire area will be put under a grid and soil samples will be pulled. We want to know exactly how much salt is in our soil.”

As mentioned previously, Vermilion Parish is a big rice-growing area. While cane is more tolerant to salt, rice is very intolerant.

“One of the good things that happened — if there is such a thing — is rains had occurred prior to the saltwater arriving. That meant soils were basically saturated with freshwater. When the saltwater came in, there was less salt penetration into the soil profile.”

By the end of November, Legendre hopes to have data showing salt accumulation in the top 12 inches of south Louisiana’s row-crop soils. Some of the samples have indicated salt concentrations aren’t as bad as originally feared.

“But we haven’t sampled everywhere. No one should be smiling yet.”

Much winter rain will be needed to rid soils of salt. Over the past several years, drought in southwest Louisiana has exacerbated the salt problem. Water used for irrigation has increasingly contained salt.

“There just isn’t a huge supply of good, fresh water in the area to purge the salt. Hopefully, over this winter, rainfall will be sufficient to help leach out any salt accumulations.”

Everyone hit

The hurricanes have affected the entire sugarcane infrastructure.

“We have growers who, more than likely, will be in financial difficulty if they’re not already there. Yields are going to be off because of the storms.”

Plus, there are far-reaching ramifications for the state’s 13 sugar mills. “There have been some mill consolidations recently. There’s an economy of size — you must be able to process a certain number of tons of cane in order to cash flow at the processing level.”

Since the mills need to process a certain amount of cane to stay in the black, a short crop bodes ill. Legendre said there could be further consolidation after this crop.

Added to the sorry mix is the price of diesel. “On Thursday night, I was speaking with a grower at an American Sugarcane League meeting. There were, maybe, 150 folks there. One grower told me the price of diesel alone means an extra expense of $150,000 for his current crop. That’s unreal — there’s not the money in agriculture to take a hit like that.”

Fertilizer prices will also leap. Cane requires 140 to 200 units of nitrogen per acre. This past year producers paid around 35 cents per unit. Next year, it will be significantly higher.

Also, many mills are having trouble securing transport for harvested cane. Due to the hurricane cleanup, independent truckers who normally haul cane have opted to haul debris in New Orleans or Lake Charles. They’re being paid $100 per hour.

“A cane hauler gets $3 to $5 per ton, depending on the distance from the mill. Say he’s getting $3 (per ton) for a 30-ton load. He might make five loads daily. That’s $450 per day. Well, he can take that same truck to New Orleans and, for eight hours of work, make $800.”

The truckers sticking with cane need considerably more money just to pay for diesel. In some cases, mills are subsidizing fuel to keep the truckers.

“It’s a twisted mess,” said Legendre. “Producers keep getting knocked down. You have to wonder how many more times they can get up. This isn’t a business for the weak.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com