It's going to be a short harvest season for sugarcane, according to an LSU AgCenter expert who says the harvest usually runs past Christmas and often into the New Year, but this year many mills will close by the middle of December.

Low tonnage — the weight of cane from the fields — is the reason for such a short season, said LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Ben Legendre.

“The cane tonnage is off probably more than 10 percent, and it looks like it may be as much as 20 percent in some areas,” Legendre said.

Several factors contribute to the low tonnage, according to Legendre.

In many areas the cane is still feeling the effects of storms in 2002 that devastated the crop. And while the local weather was not as severe this year, it did cause some problems.

“We had good plant cane last year,” Legendre said. “But then we had 30 inches to 40 inches of rain during the spring of this year, so we didn't have the number of stalks we normally have.”

Drought in the summer and record warm October weather did not help the cane either. “The crop tried to grow in October, and that is just too late in the year,” he said.

As for good news, while tonnage is down, some mills were recovering record amounts of sugar from the cane, according to Legendre, who said there was a dry period right as harvest started, which helped with sugar recovery.

“When the mills started, they actually had some of the better recoveries that we've had in quite some time,” Legendre said, explaining that the recovery is the number of pounds of sugar produced per ton of cane — the measurement used to express sugar yield.

On the other hand, with heavy rain in some areas, recovery rates have come down, according to Legendre, who said the state as a whole is averaging 205 pounds of sugar per ton of cane. This is down from record numbers last year, but still good.

Louisiana farmers planted less cane this year than they have in recent years. Many farmers and mills were worried that if they planted more, they would not be able to market their entire crop.

“As it turned out, because of the residual effects of the storm and the fact that we have a short crop, we're going to be able to market everything we have out there,” Legendre said. “Farmers could have kept all of their acres.”

Louisiana sugarcane acreage was down about 30,000 acres from last year when the state's farmers had more than 480,000 acres planted and saw total cane tonnage harvested of about 1.42 million tons. Last year's harvest yielded an average of 212 pounds of sugar per ton of cane, and the total value of the sugarcane industry means nearly $589 million to the state's economy in 2003.


Tobie Blanchard is a writer for the LSU AgCenter. e-mail: tblanchard@agcenter.lsu.edu.