Uneven sugarcane harvest in Louisiana may be offset, somewhat, by low fuel costs

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LAFAYETTE, Louisiana — Louisiana sugar cane farmers are reporting an uneven 2014 harvest, one that produced weak yields in the southeastern section of the state but stronger results in lands lying westward.

And sugar brokers are going into 2015 selling the commodity at a price that has rebounded somewhat from last year's low levels.

"It's hard to figure out Mother Nature," said Denny Lanaux, who in the past year grew sugar on 4,827 of his 7,000 acres in St. Charles, St. James and Lafourche parishes.

The results were disappointing, said Lanaux, a third-generation cane farmer. He said he couldn't put a finger on exactly why his land yielded far fewer tons of cane on each acre.

"We had a cold, cold spring. I'm thinking that had a lot to do with it," he said. "The crop looked terrible from the summer on. It looked like we hadn't even fertilized it, that's how bad it looked."

Lanaux said other cane growers located just to the west and southwest of New Orleans had the same experience.

"It was a mixed bag," Benjamin Legendre, sugar specialist at the Audubon Sugar Institute in St. Gabriel, said about statewide yields.

Legendre said cane sugar content — how much sugar can be extracted from each stalk — was up considerably in 2014 for all of Louisiana. The problem for some was there were far fewer pounds of cane pulled from each acre this season.

Legendre said the state average this year was 32 to 33 tons per acre, not far off from the 2013 yield of 34 tons per acre, with acreage in the Bayou Lafourche area dragging the average down. Meanwhile, cane grown in Iberia, St. Mary and other parishes along Bayou Teche and to the north reported better yields.

Helping matters was a harvest season that stayed fairly dry from October through almost all of November, Legendre said.

"During that time, we had very good harvesting operations. So, as a result, mud, trash and so forth was considerably less than what you would typically expect," he said.

Farmers can expect more money for their efforts this year than following the 2013 harvest, when millions of tons of unfettered sugar from Mexico flattened the per-pound price for U.S. farmers.

In December 2013, the price for one pound of raw sugar sold for less than 20 cents, the floor price at which the U.S. government stepped in with supports to keep it from falling further.

In April, after the American Sugar Alliance and other U.S. sugar associations filed an antidumping suit alleging unfair practices — the ASA claims the Mexican government owns 20 percent of the cane farms — the Department of Commerce initiated an investigation.

The investigation had an effect on prices. This past December, one pound of sugar fetched almost 25 cents, a increase of 25 percent from the previous year, according to the ASA.

Not all farmers benefited from the rise.

"While prices have moved up into the 24, 25 cent range in the last several months, a lot of our crop was sold well in advance at a lower price," said Jim Simon, with the Thibodaux-based American Sugar Cane League.

Simon also said celebrating farmers' apparent victory in the antidumping case might have been premature.

In October, the Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration announced that U.S. and Mexican negotiators had reached a deal. In the news release, the ITC said the agreement stipulated that Mexico could continue to import sugar duty-free into the U.S. because there were built-in "mechanisms to ensure that unfairly traded imports of Mexican sugar" would not hurt U.S. producers.

"It was a prospective settlement," Simon said. "It wasn't a final settlement agreement. . The final outcome of that is uncertain.

In April, the ITC will hold hearings to finalize the details, Simon said.

Low prices the past two years also forced some farmers to try other crops, such as soybeans, on some of their acreage.

Simon said the attraction of growing a crop other than sugar cane lies in how long it takes to grow. "(Cane) is not like soybeans or rice, where you plant it in April and you harvest it in July or August."

Legendre, with the Audubon Sugar Institute, said many farmers who substituted beans for cane will return to sugar this year.

Farmers could also find relief on the cost side of their operations: Diesel is selling for one-third less than one year ago, from around $3 a gallon to $2 because of a dramatic fall in oil prices since the summer.

"We didn't get the full effect of it (the price drop) for all of the harvest," said Lanaux, the Lafourche Parish farmer. Lanaux said that unlike other cane farmers, he bought only 2,500 gallons at the beginning of the harvest and was able to purchase the fuel later at a lower price.

Other farmers will have to wait until operations commence this year to take advantage of the price, Simon said.

"I think moving into the spring is where we're going to see that fuel price relief," he said.


Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com

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