SWEET SCIENCE OF SUGAR: Getting new varieties of sugarcane to Louisiana farmers is the goal of the Sugar Research Station

Craig Gautreaux

Imagine that perfect cup of coffee with just the right amount of sugar. How about a bowl of oatmeal complemented by a dash of brown sugar to get your morning started off right? You can almost be sure that sweet concoction of sugar can be traced back to work conducted at the LSU AgCenter Sugar Research Station.

Located at St. Gabriel in Iberville Parish, the Sugar Research Station has been housed at several locations.

The Sugar Research Station’s first home in 1885 was at the Schultz plantation located in Kenner. Five years later, the Sugar Experiment Station was moved to Audubon Park in New Orleans, according to Kenneth Gravois, AgCenter state sugarcane specialist.

After the lease was terminated at Audubon Park, the Sugar Experiment Station and the Audubon Sugar School were moved to the LSU campus in Baton Rouge in the early 1920s. In 1968, the station moved to its current site.

One of the biggest charges of the station is developing new varieties. Collins Kimbeng is the lead plant breeder for the sugarcane variety development program. Just this year, he and his team released L14-267, a new variety that has a high content of sugar, yields well and is resistant to diseases.

“Plant breeding is kind of like finding a needle in a haystack,” Kimbeng said. “It takes about 12 years to get enough information to release a new variety.”

The development of new varieties is considered the lifeblood of the Louisiana sugarcane industry. And the Sugar Research Station has played a key role in developing new varieties with vastly greater yields.

“We have seen yields more than doubled during the past 50 years,” Kimbeng said. “Growers also have more varieties to choose from, which allows them to pick the ones best suited for their farms.”

Many times, Kimbeng will start with more than 100,000 clones at the beginning of the variety development process. After several years, that number may be reduced to only a handful. These lucky survivors are then trialed at various farms across the sugarcane growing region.

After going through the trial process, the final hurdle is a vote between the AgCenter, the American Sugar Cane League and the USDA Sugar Research Unit located in Houma. All three must approve the variety for it be released to growers.

John Gay farms for the St. Louis Planting Company, which is just across the Mississippi River from the station. The Gay family has been farming cane in the area since 1807; John Gay has been involved for more than 40 years. The farm serves as one of the off-station sites for variety testing.

Gay has seen firsthand the improvements made through variety development during his career. His farm was one of the first in Louisiana to exceed more than 11,000 pounds of recoverable sugar per acre.

“When I first started farming, they were handing out certificates and rankings in the larger farm category, and the farmer won with 5,800 pounds of sugar,” Gay said. “We’ve just about doubled that now.”

Developing a new variety requires experts in many disciplines, and there are scientists doing research at the station representing these areas.

Diseases are a major problem in sugarcane, and the disease mosaic nearly wiped out the sugarcane industry in the 1920s. Today, pathologists help recognize potential varieties that have resistance to it and other diseases such as smut or rust.

Insects are another major issue. Entomologists work on integrated pest management strategies for the major pests of sugarcane, such as the sugarcane borer and the Mexican rice borer.

Controlling weeds in a typical Louisiana lawn is a tough task, and it is no easier in a sugarcane field, which is a grass plant. Weed scientists develop tactics for overcoming weeds such as johnsongrass and nightshade. And while some people love to have Bermuda grass lawns, in a sugarcane field, it is nothing more than a noxious weed.

Off the coast of Louisiana every summer, a large dead zone develops. One of the major ingredients in the creation of this dead zone is a large nutrient runoff from agricultural fields in the upper Mississippi River valley. Fertility experts with the AgCenter are studying how much fertilizer is needed to produce a successful crop and what application methods work best to keep it in the cane fields and out of the bayous that feed the Gulf.

A sign the work being done at the station is on the right path is the state’s growing sugarcane acreage. This year’s crop is expected to be more than 500,000 acres, which is an increase of approximately 100,000 acres in 10 years.

Sugarcane has been grown in Louisiana for more than 250 years. It has had to overcome numerous obstacles, including insects, diseases, frequent hurricanes and less frequent killing freezes. But it has overcome them all and continues to be a major contributor to the economic well-being of Louisiana.

“It’s a resilient crop,” Gravois said. “We have bred the varieties to be tough, and we have directed our research into developing varieties that will endure these conditions.”

Craig Gautreaux is a communications specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications.

(This article appears in the fall 2021 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

Alt text: sugarcane breeding greenhouse

Several stalks of sugarcane exhibit flowers beside the crossing house at the LSU AgCenter Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel. These flowers will be crossed with other flowers to develop seeds of potential new varieties. It will be at least 12 years from the time these stalks flower until a new variety is released. Photo by Craig Gautreaux

Alt text: sugarcane plants outside of the breeding house

Sugarcane stalks sit outside after being removed from the photoperiod houses. The plants are placed in the photoperiod houses to reduce the amount of daylight hours they are exposed to, which causes the plants to set flowers. Research associates at the station start placing the stalks in the photoperiods houses in early June and flowers will begin to emerge in late August and early September. Breeders will begin making crosses in early September. Photo by Craig Gautreaux

Alt text: aerial view of the Sugar Research Station, showing the Mississippi River

Nestled along the east bank of the Mississippi River in St. Gabriel, the Sugar Research Station plays an integral role in the development of new varieties and integrated pest management strategies for growing sugarcane. The station comprises 600 acres and conducts research on weed management, plant diseases and fertility studies. The station has had several locations and was moved to its current location in 1968. Photo by Daniel Forestieri

Alt text: man standing in greenhouse

Michael Pontif, a sugarcane breeder at the LSU AgCenter Sugar Research Station, shakes male flowers to shed pollen onto female flowers stationed below the males to help produce seeds for the development of new sugarcane varieties. The seeds, or “fuzz,” will be planted, and those that germinate will be grown on the station grounds. If the clones show desirable characteristics such as having good yields, high sugar content and disease resistance, they will then be advanced to the next stage of the variety development program. Photo by Craig Gautreaux

Alt text: sugarcane flower on top of a sugarcane plant

A sugarcane flower sits atop a sugarcane stalk at the LSU AgCenter Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel. When these flowers mature, they are identified as male or female flowers and are paired together in the crossing house. They then will produce “fuzz,” which are the seeds used to begin growing new potential sugarcane varieties. Photo by Craig Gautreaux

11/23/2021 9:23:19 PM
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