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Cotton makes room

Normally associated with more balmy locales of Florida and the Caribbean, sugar cane is also a big crop in Louisiana. But even in Louisiana, it's a bit unusual to think of sugar cane being harvested as far north as centrally-located Alexandria.

But it is, and Brian and Kurt Vanderlick of Lecompte, La., have been at it for four years now. How does the sugar cane do this far north?

“We have no major troubles with it, nothing out of the ordinary,” says Brian. “We aren't the northern-most folks farming it, either. There's a farmer who's got us beat on that.”

This will be the Vanderlicks third harvest. Sugar cane isn't new to the area, although it has seen an acreage upsurge in recent years.

“They used to grow sugar cane big-time around here. But in the early 1980s, the sugar mill was closed. It sits right across the road from our shop. Then, in the late 1980s, farmers started growing it again,” says Brian.

Cotton made this part of the country. Right now, sugar cane is helping keep it here, insists Kurt.

“It's strange. We were a big cotton area until about five years ago. When the market fell out of cotton, the sugar cane market went up. A lot of farmers switched to cane. At that point, they sold much of their cotton equipment. Now, sugar cane has lost a bit of luster and cotton is coming back. Everyone wishes they'd kept that equipment now because it's scarce,” says Vanderlick farm consultant Randy Machovec, an employee of Pest Management Enterprises, Inc.

Many farmers in the area, including the Vanderlicks, are going to more minimum-till practices. Can sugar cane be no-tilled?

“A lot of it — especially for sugar cane — depends on the weed spectrum that's in the field during spring. It also depends on harvest conditions. If it was a wet harvest, there are ruts 2 feet deep. Running cane carts through fields will tear them up,” says Machovec.

The Vanderlicks are going to go with as much no-till/minimum-till sugar cane as they can this year. Machovec believes it will work out well for them.

For sugar cane, most farmers at this time of year use a machine that pulls the row out. They leave the bit of row where the cane is growing and apply a herbicide. They then go across the field again and pull the row back up.

Harvest of sugar cane is normally a little later than cotton. A lot depends on how much the mills have coming in.

The colder it gets, the sweeter the sugar cane. When temperatures get into the 30s and 40s, the sugar cane will be good, says Brian.

As with other crops, there are varieties of cane. Most everyone has gone to 384, which has a high sugar content and many stalks per acre. Basic payment is based on total recoverable sugar, says Machovec. But tonnage has something to do with it, too.

“If you get out 30 tons of cane per acre and 200 pounds of sugar per ton, you're doing well. But if you get 40 tons of cane, it's even better.”

With cane, farmers are highly concerned with only one pest: the sugar caneborer. The insect, just as with the cornborer, gets into the plant and travels up and down the stalk. Baythroid, Confirm and Karate are all good at dealing with the borers, says Machovec.

“Some of it goes back to NAFTA. Mexico is a top consumer of soda. They want sugar. With the trade agreement, our farmers were able to find a market,” says Machovec.

However, getting into sugar cane production isn't an easy decision — it's very expensive.

“It could cost you around $1 million to break in, depending on how big your operation is. A harvester is $200,000. Each cart can cost between $25,000 and $30,000 and you must have several. You've got to have more tractors, trucks on the road, labor, and all the rest. Essentially, you're running a whole separate operation from other row crops you might be growing. There's very little overlapping of equipment,” says Machovec.

Kurt runs the sugar cane harvester a lot. As with a combine, the harvester throws the crop into carts.

“We've been running four carts, but we're going to run five next year. Anytime there's mud, it slows us way down,” says Brian.

How long does it take to harvest 1,500 acres of cane in optimum conditions?

“It doesn't matter. The mill tells us how much to bring every day,” says Brian.

What happens is this: the mill gets an estimate from all area growers. Say they have a start date of Sept. 25 and they'll grind until Jan. 10. They break that down and tell farmers how many loads to bring every day.

“It doesn't matter if the sun is shining or it's raining. All that matters is how much the mill wants. If they want a certain amount, we provide it. If it's dry, we might get home at 3 in the afternoon. If it's raining, we might not get home until 10 that night. They run the mill all day long, so it doesn't matter,” says Kurt.

“You get used to it. We leave the pickers on the end of the row and harvest a row at a time. It works out,” says Brian.


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