Initial reports on Louisiana’s sugarcane crop indicate damage from Hurricane Isaac, while bad, could have been worse. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean some producers haven’t seen their crops devastated.

On Tuesday (September 4), Ben Legendre, director of the Audubon Sugar Institute, spoke with Delta Farm Press about the situation.

For more Isaac coverage, see here and here.

Among Legendre’s comments:

On assessing damage…

“Right after the hurricane, Ken Gravois (LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist) met with as many growers and (Extension) agents as he could. He’s found that the damage to cane along the (Mississippi) River and Bayou LaFourche included it being flattened.

“That cane had as much as 15 to 20 inches of rain. Even without any wind, that would have caused the cane to lodge and go down.

“However, the spring-back has been quick. Today, most of the cane that went down is back to a 45-degree angle. There is some breakage in some varieties, but not an extreme amount.

“From Morgan City west, some cane is lodged but it isn’t nearly as bad as it is along the Mississippi River and Bayou LaFourche. Farther north, the damages aren’t as great. However, the storm did track toward Baton Rouge and most of the caneland north of the city did experience some high winds, although the rain wasn’t as intense.

“The cane along Bayou Teche doesn’t appear to have sustained nearly the amount of damage in other areas. In many cases, less than two inches of rain fell and the cane isn’t lodged as badly.

“There’s little fraying of leaves in cane along Bayou Teche indicating the wind velocity wasn’t as great. As a result, the cane won’t have to develop new leaves.

“When the leaves are frayed, the cane tends to lose photosynthetic efficiency. In those cases, the cane stops growing and storing sucrose for a period.

“The cane must recover before it can begin re-growing and store sucrose. That will take time.”

On other damage…

“There has been some flood damage that wasn’t anticipated. That includes areas on the east bank in St. John Parish and into St. James Parish. There, flooding came in from tidal surge and a lot of the cane is still underwater.

“An agent from St. John Parish called me today. He said a farmer had planted about 20 acres in sand. Right now, basically, all the plant cane is exposed. That shows the intensity of the water and rains. Sandy soils couldn’t handle that.

“What will be critical now is the fact that many of our growers hadn’t finished planting. That means much of the cane will be very crooked, very brittle. It will be very difficult whole stalks now.

“That means many growers will plant billets. That isn’t really recommended because we find that you have to plant so much more seed cane. Initial germination can be very good but the billeted cane doesn’t overwinter very well. Next spring, in many cases, that will mean billeted stands won’t be where they should be and typically leads to a cane crop that isn’t as good as a crop planted from whole stalks.”

Predicting a difficult harvest and milling season…

“With everything taken into consideration, we’ll have a more difficult harvest with more breakage along the Mississippi River and Bayou LaFourche. There won’t be as much growth, we’ll possibly lose sugar storage and we’ll definitely lose some sugar recovery because, in effect, downed cane can’t be topped. That means more trash going to the mill. Whenever you add trash to the mix every one percent decreases the amount of sugar recovery by about three pounds.

“Still, I don’t think we’ll see losses in the 25 percent range as in previous storms. Over half the acreage of the state is in decent shape. I think ripeners will work fairly well and growers will be able to finish planting without much of a problem.”