Sugarcane: An Important Industry Facing Many Challenges

Freddie A. Martin and Jeffrey W. Hoy

The Louisiana sugar industry, with its long history and rich tradition, is a vital component of the unique culture of south Louisiana. The industry, which celebrated its bicentennial in 1995, is made up of nearly 700 family farms that produced more than 1.5 million tons of sugar from 460,000 acres of sugarcane in 2000. The economic activity resulting from the production of sugarcane and its processing into sugar in Louisiana is estimated to be more than $2 billion per year. To achieve this level of success, the sugarcane industry has relied on research to overcome many obstacles. Research will continue to play a vital role in the industry’s future success.

The climate of Louisiana has always challenged sugarcane producers. Louisiana lies at the northern limit of the sugarcane cultivation range. A short growing season that can include drought or hurricanes, a short harvest season that can be too wet, and a cold and wet dormant season challenge the vitality of this tropical plant and create many problems affecting both production of sugarcane and processing of the cane to produce sugar. Because the risk of a plant-killing freeze increases in December, the harvest must begin before the sugarcane reaches maximum sugar content. Old World varieties and varieties produced for other regions of the world do not grow well in Louisiana’s climate. Nevertheless, researchers building on the foundations laid by their predecessors have bred, selected and released varieties uniquely suited to Louisiana.

Changing economics and south Louisiana’s growing population are making the economic future of sugarcane and sugar production uncertain. The industry faces stagnant or decreasing prices for the product, while the costs of production and processing continue to increase. In addition, the population continues to grow and encroach on production areas and mills, creating new problems related to pesticide applications, burning of cane at harvest and transportation to the mills.

Change is necessary for survival, and the sugarcane industry is responsive to change fueled by research. Most change is prompted by problems, and research addressing the needs of the industry has been continuous. Noteworthy research accomplishments have already occurred in the areas of new variety development, photoperiod control of flowering, cultural and fertility practices, integrated pest management, weed control methodology, and development of disease monitoring and healthy seedcane programs. In recent years, the rate of change has accelerated dramatically. This is due in part to the release of a high-yielding variety, LCP 85-384, and the adoption of a combine harvesting system. Higher yields are keeping the industry in business, but the related shifts in methods for planting, cultivation, harvest and processing have created many new questions that research must address.

The LSU AgCenter sugarcane research program has changed as it continues to address the current and future needs of the industry effectively. The breeding program has been consolidated at the St. Gabriel facility, and the station has been re-named the Sugar Research Station. Significant financial resources were dedicated to obtaining a combine harvesting system for the station. The Audubon Sugar Institute has reorganized and is undertaking both research and teaching missions related to sugar processing. Research has increased on environmentally related projects. The Sugarcane Disease Detection Laboratory was created to provide disease monitoring for research programs and healthy plant material for commercial seedcane production. Finally, programs addressing all of the other areas related to sugarcane production are being maintained.

In summary, the continued well-being of Louisiana’s important sugar industry depends on research, and the LSU AgCenter sugarcane research program is dedicated to making sure the Louisiana industry remains competitive and continues to produce sugar for another 200 years.

5/31/2005 9:45:26 PM
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