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Sugar prices, crop outlook look good

Louisiana sugar prices, yields favorable Yields were surprising considering early season problems New varieties, new challenges explored at meeting

Sugarcane farmers from Iberia, St. Mary and Vermilion parishes heard recently from a variety of experts on improving their crop after a harvest with above-average prices.

No market indicators are signaling any price decline or demand increase, said LSU AgCenter economist Mike Salassi. He said freezing weather in Florida boosted prices by more than 2 cents a pound, and floods in Australia and Brazil may affect prices. “We should know in the next couple of weeks how that’s going to affect the market.”

Vermilion Parish had the top average yield with 7,000 pounds of sugar per acre on 30,000 acres, while Iberia averaged 6,760 pounds on 58,000 acres, and St. Mary had 6,710 pounds on 44,000 acres, said Blair Hebert, LSU AgCenter county agent in Iberia Parish.

Hebert said farmers planted most of their acreage in the varieties HoCP 96-540 and L 99-226. He expects more sugarcane farmers will plant soybeans in their fallow ground this year because of the high prices for that commodity.

Hebert said he was surprised at the high sugar level, despite drought conditions in many areas. He said weed control is becoming a more difficult problem.

Jimmy Flanagan, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Mary Parish, said he was surprised by the good crop this past year, with heavy rain in December, 2009 and no rain in the spring. “On April 1, if you’d told me this crop would be anything near normal, I would have told you that you were a fool.”

This year’s crop should be good if the weather is favorable, Flanagan said. He said farmers were encouraged to spend money for expenses such as extra weed control because of good sugar prices. “We’ve had one of the best plantings I’ve seen in a long time.”

Yields were not all good in Louisiana, said Jim Simon, general manager of the American Sugarcane League. Farmers in Lafourche Parish struggled to get an average yield of only 5,800 pounds of sugar per acre.

The corn industry is trying to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to corn sugar on product listings of ingredients, Simon said. It’s uncertain if the sugar industry should contest that change while debate is starting on the new farm bill.

In addition, sugar beet farmers are in court defending their use of Roundup Ready sugar beets, which now dominate the acreage, Simon said. Beet farmers are in a quandary as courts have banned planting these seeds until further review, and they are trying to obtain conventional beet seed in case they lose the litigation.

If beet production declines because of the uncertainty, it could cause prices to increase slightly, but it could be bad for farming, Simon said. “To have a hit like this is not a good thing in the long run.”

Since the genetically modified seed was approved in 2005, it has been planted on 95 percent of all sugar beet acreage across 10 U.S. states.

The Center for Food Safety, a non-profit public interest and environmental advocacy organization, has challenged the use of genetically modified sugar beets, and a U.S. District judge in Minnesota has ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a full environmental impact study of the genetically altered plants.

Borer warning

LSU AgCenter entomologist Gene Reagan also warned farmers that detection of the Mexican rice borer in Louisiana is a threat to Louisiana’s cane crop. The insect was found in a monitoring trap six miles southwest of Sulphur in a non-crop area. 

Reagan said more of the borers have been found in the same area since then, but no one has found indications that the insect has migrated further eastward. More monitors will be set out in Calcasieu Parish.

Since the 1980s, entomologists have been monitoring the borer’s spread from south Texas in sugarcane and rice.

Several sugarcane varieties have been tested for resistance to the Mexican rice borer, Reagan said, and many are showing positive results, including three South African varieties.

A new sugarcane variety released this year, LO3-371, shows promise, said LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Kenneth Gravois. “Seed of 371 was distributed this past summer. We’ve got a few varieties coming down the pipeline.”

Another new variety may be approved for release this year, he said. But HoCP 96-540 and L 99-226 are still good choices for farmers.

Cold weather last year helped suppress rust diseases on sugarcane, and the same thing could happen this year, Gravois said. “Rust needs green living tissue to survive. The recent freezes have helped in that regard.”

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