After nearly five years of hard times for sugarcane farmers, this year’s crop looks like it will be much better than the crops of the past few years, according to LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Dr. Ben Legendre.
"After three consecutive years of diminishing yields since 2002, it appears the 2006 crop will be comparable to the better crops of 1997 through 2001 – not a record crop like the one of 1999, but a near normal crop with average sugarcane yields of 32-33 tons," Legendre said.
Rene Schmit, the LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Charles Parish, said the quality of the sugarcane crop is measured by the sucrose level of the crop, and this year’s crop is equal to and in some cases higher than last year’s.
"I’m not saying that we have a record-breaking crop this year, but we do have on average a much taller, thicker-barreled, higher-population crop for the 2006 harvest season," he said.
Legendre said growers will harvest nearly 425,000 acres of sugarcane over the next 90 days.
He said a good 2006 crop will help sugarcane farmers out of the financial rut that the bad years have caused. The expenses of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides – in addition to equipment – make it extremely tough on growers when the yield is low.
"Today, the cost of a new combine is about $250,000. And then you need about three wagons, which cost $30,000 each, plus three tractors at $70,000 each. So these costs are making it really hard on our smaller growers," Legendre said.
Schmit said the reduced cash flow of the past five years is just one of the reasons that some farmers are getting out of the business.
"In addition to the bad economic situation that growers have faced, some have been forced out by landlords selling land to developers," Schmit said, "As the land goes, whether to residential developments, business or industry, so will go the Louisiana sugarcane industry and the sugarcane farmer."
He said the official numbers are not out yet for how many sugarcane farmers left the business during the past year, but he estimates the number to be somewhere around 25.
Legendre said there are about 700 sugarcane farmers in the state and each year there’s normally a loss of five to 10 growers either to retirement or because it’s not profitable any longer.
"What we’re seeing are the smaller farmers getting out and their farms being bought by large farms that are becoming even larger.
“So we have fewer farms and farmers, but larger operations that do a better job of surviving the tough times," he said.