Louisiana sugarcane farmers are harvesting their crop ahead of schedule, and they expect to be out of the fields sooner than usual.

Dry fields are helping farmers.

“The dry conditions this fall are very conducive to excellent harvesting conditions,” said Kenneth Gravois, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist. “The cane is easier to clean of dry leaves and tops, and less mud is brought along with the cane into the raw sugar factories, which means lower sediment levels.”

This year’s harvest is similar to the 2010 harvest. “In fact, 2010 and 2011 may end up as the Louisiana sugar industry’s highest sugar recoveries on record,” said Gravois.

“Sugar is great, and tonnage is a little low, and it’s been dry,” said Iberia Parish farmer Kevin Gonsoulin.

Farmer Bobby Morris of West Baton Rouge Parish said he expects to wrap up the harvest during the holidays. “I’m hoping to finish between Christmas and New Year’s. You’re racing the weather. If you get a hard freeze and then it warms up, you only have a week or two to get it out before it starts to spoil.”

Recent rains won’t slow down the harvest, he said.

Sugar content is high this year, said Al Guidry, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Martin Parish. “Because of the drought, the tonnage is not there.”

The average in 2010 was 32 tons per acre. “This year, we are hoping we get 28, but I’m not sure we’re going to make it.”

Last year’s harvest continued past Jan. 1. “This year, we’ll definitely be finished by Christmas,” Guidry said.

The St. John mill at St. Martinville started grinding cane in early October.

The crop that was planted this year received needed rainfall from Tropical Storm Lee, but dry conditions are making for an ideal harvest, Guidry said. “The biggest problem the farmers are having is keeping up with the mills.”

Farmers who normally plant wheat in rotation with sugarcane are choosing not to grow that crop because of low prices and no rainfall.

Harvest will probably be shorter than the expected 100-day grinding season, said Blair Hebert, LSU AgCenter county agent in Iberia Parish. “There’s no mud, there’s no water. It’s just dry cane.”

Many farmers are cutting two or three extra truckloads a day to keep a steady flow of sugarcane for the mills.

Dry weather has made ideal conditions for harvesting, said Jimmy Flanagan, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Mary Parish. Farmers are likely to wrap up the year with 31 to 32 tons of cane per acre and 6,300-6,400 pounds of raw sugar per acre.

With good prices, farmers will be spending more money at area businesses, said Flanagan. “It invigorates the local economy. There’s no question about that.”

Many farmers will be able to do things that were put off during lean times. “Really it’s kind of a catch-up for a lot of them to take care of old debt.”

Farmers and mills are enjoying higher sugar prices, and Gravois said the improved market reflects worldwide supply and demand. Brazil’s sugar output affects the world market, he said, and that country’s crop is forecast to be smaller than in previous years.

Farmers will be able to catch up on deferred maintenance that they couldn’t afford in past years, said Jim Simon, general manager of the American Sugar Cane League.

This year’s Louisiana sugarcane crop is roughly 480,000 acres, a decrease of 5,000-10,000 cares from last year. It’s possible that next year’s acreage could increase because of good prices.

A dry harvest also means less field work that farmers will have to do to repair ruts that would have been left in muddy fields, Simon said. “When you have a dry harvest, you also don’t do nearly the damage to the stubble.”