Christmas freeze puts damper on record sugarcane season

(01/11/23) NEW IBERIA, La. — In his 33 years of farming sugarcane, Ricky Gonsoulin had never had as good of a crop as the one he saw growing in his fields in 2022. And in 33 years, he had never lost so much as a stalk of sugarcane to a freeze.

But that unlikely scenario came to pass in late December when an arctic blast sent temperatures below freezing for three days across Louisiana. At his farm near New Iberia, Gonsoulin spent Christmas waiting for his cane to thaw so he could survey the damage and get back to work harvesting whatever remained.

In his fields, he discovered browned cane that had begun to ferment — jeopardizing what should have been a record amount of sugar to be extracted at the mill.

“Before Christmas, this farm was averaging around 231 CRS per acre,” Gonsoulin said, referring to commercial recoverable sucrose, a measure of sugar produced per ton of cane. “Right now? 170 to 175.”

The weather was unkind to nearly every crop grown in Louisiana in 2022; excessive rainfall bookended by droughty periods cut into yields and profits. Despite the recent hard freeze, sugarcane has been a bright spot in the state’s agriculture sector. The cane belt grew to an all-time high of nearly 500,000 acres, and as of Jan. 7, the Louisiana sugar industry surpassed a record for total sugar production that was set in 2021.

“It was a year of dreams,” Gonsoulin said.

But for farmers like Gonsoulin who still had cane in the field when the freeze hit, the full potential of the 2022 season may not be realized. Gonsoulin is now worried about warmer temperatures souring his damaged cane as he hurries to finish up what has already been a lengthy harvest season.

Farmers like to complete harvest within about 100 days. Gonsoulin, who started harvesting in mid-September, had reached the 120-day mark and still had 20% of his acreage left to cut at the end of the first week of January.

“We knew we had a big crop coming in,” said Blair Hebert, an area sugarcane agent with the LSU AgCenter. “We had a lot of acres. We had a good crop. So we knew it wasn’t going to be a 100-day harvest.”

Recent rainfall has compounded farmers’ headaches. Muddy conditions are making it harder to get the last of the crop out of the field — and the clock is ticking for producers to cut cane and haul it to one of the handful of Louisiana’s 11 sugar mills that haven’t closed for the season yet.

“That last bit of cane is being ground by fewer mills,” said AgCenter sugarcane specialist Kenneth Gravois. “What’s remaining out there is probably 10% to 15% of people’s estimated crop. With cold weather, there’s deterioration. And so with more impurities in the mill, it slows the grinding rate down.”

Mills — which already had a busy grinding season as they processed a larger-than-ever crop — are having to do extra work due to the quality of sugarcane they’re receiving. The freeze-damaged crop has two to three times the usual amount of molasses, which makes it harder to make sugar, Gravois said. The juice of deteriorating cane also tends to have a lower pH — an indicator of a polysaccharide that makes processing more difficult and for which farmers are penalized.

“It’s very emotional out there,” Gravois said. “It’s people’s livelihoods.”

In Iberia Parish, where Hebert is based, “just about everybody is associated one way or another with the sugarcane crop.”

“If we’re speaking honestly,” Hebert said, “there’s some high emotions, some high stress levels. But I think everybody is aware that we’ve got to work together, and we’re going to do everything we can to support everyone.”

He noted the resiliency of the industry, which has endured hurricanes and many other challenges over the years.

While the situation is evolving day by day, Gravois remains optimistic.

“When you look at sugarcane yields per acre, they’re still going to be good for the season,” he said. “They’re not going to be as high as they could have been, but prices are still decent. So it’s going to be a crop that’s not as good as it could have been, but it’s still a good crop.”

Gonsoulin too is trying to stay hopeful.

“It’s going to be a test for the industry,” he said. “Everybody is looking at what’s going on and learning from what’s happening. If we’re successful in grinding this crop, it’s going to be a learning lesson, and we’ll be able to improve our varieties moving forward, improve our milling processes.”

Browned sugarcane.

Sugarcane that turned brown as a result of the recent hard freeze. Photo by Craig Gautreaux/LSU AgCenter

Sugarcane being loaded into a truck.

Sugarcane is loaded into a truck at Ricky Gonsoulin’s farm. Photo by Craig Gautreaux/LSU AgCenter

Farmer standing in his field.

Iberia Parish farmer Ricky Gonsoulin is trying to remain optimistic as he finishes up harvesting his sugarcane crop, which suffered damage during the recent hard freeze. Photo by Craig Gautreaux/LSU AgCenter

1/11/2023 1:14:13 PM
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