Southwest Louisiana farmers who are looking for an alternative crop should consider growing sugarcane to meet the increasing demand created by the syrup mill at Lacassine, La.

That was the message at a recent sugarcane and ethanol forum held in Lake Charles, La., by the LSU AgCenter.

Willie Danos, president of the Lake Charles Sugarcane Cooperative, said the current acreage in the area is only 8,000, but the goal for the mill is 30,000 acres of cane.

Danos also said an ethanol plant will be built next to the syrup mill within two years, and that will give the Colombian corporation running the mill the extra flexibility of producing the fuel supplement or syrup that is converted into sugar at a plant near Jeanerette, La.

“We are committed to this project,” he told a group of farmers and agricultural consultants. “I have 10 years invested, and I’m putting everything into it to make it work.”

Danos said many southwestern Louisiana sugarcane growers previously grew rice, and one had never farmed before.

“It’s an opportunity to get started in agriculture,” he said.

Danos also said farmers would not have to plant all their acreage in sugarcane but that they could start with a portion of their fields and gradually increase the amount.

The Lake Charles Cane LLC will provide custom services, such as planting and harvesting, which reduces the most expensive labor and equipment expenses, he said.

Danos said doubts have shadowed the Lacassine facility, “but we’ve been persistent.”

He said the first years have been plagued with drought, low prices and transportation problems. At one point, sugarcane acreage in the area topped 16,000, he said, but that declined after a price drop.

Completion of the mill was delayed by hurricanes in 2005, so it did not start processing sugarcane until the fall of 2006. But Danos said once the mill started running, it was a race to keep up with the demand for feedstock. Harvesting continued 24 hours a day, Danos said, but “we couldn’t bring in enough cane.”

Two freezes in early December caused the sugar content in the cane to drop, he said, and processing stopped on Dec. 29.

Jerry Whatley, LSU AgCenter county agent in Calcasieu Parish, said the potential exists to make money from sugarcane. When rainfall has been adequate, yields have been respectable, he said.

During the meeting, LSU AgCenter economist Kurt Guidry gave an overview of a budget that shows what growers could expect to spend on converting land to grow sugarcane.

Cathy Denison-Wicke of the Louisiana Business Grant and Loan Program also told producers they could receive grants or interest-free loans to help them recover from Hurricane Rita. She said seafood producers also are eligible for the program offered by the Louisiana Department of Economic Development.

Farming operations usually aren’t eligible for many government business loan or grant programs, but this is open to all agricultural producers, she said.

The state has $100 million to fund grants — although no grant can exceed $20,000 — and $38 million for no-interest loans with a maximum of $250,000 per applicant.

For more information on the program, visit the Web site at http://led.louisiana.gov/business-recovery-grant-and-loan-program.aspx.

e-mail: bschultz@agcenter.lsu.edu.