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Sugarcane harvest good, price decent

Sugarcane growers are nearing the end of the harvest season with the last mill set to shut down at mid-January.

Growers have a “really good crop” this year, but trying to compare the 2009 crop with 2008 is a “tale with two endings,” said Kenneth Gravois, the LSU AgCenter’s new sugarcane specialist.

“Even with the hurricane last year, we had a very dry harvest, but this year has been a really wet harvest,” Gravois said. “I would say in 2008, our tonnages were lower, but our sugar recoveries were higher. In 2009, our tonnages were higher, and sugar recoveries were lower. They are polar opposites.”

Gravois had served as head of the LSU AgCenter’s Sugarcane Research Station and the sugarcane breeding program since 1997 before assuming his new duties as the sugarcane specialist.

He said his new position will allow him to work more closely with sugarcane growers and to share his many years of experience with them.

“I grew up on the farm, and I think my farm background will help in relation to the growers. I guess I view this specialist position much like an elder statesman, where you can use your years of experience to relate to growers.”

Gravois, who began his career as a rice breeder in Arkansas, has a combined 21 years of experience in breeding rice and sugarcane. He said he will approach his new position as he has with other new challenges — “talk little and listen much the first year.”

Gravois replaced Ben Legendre, who had been the AgCenter’s sugarcane specialist since 2000 and has been head of the AgCenter’s Audubon Sugar Institute since 2007.

This harvest has been a long and grueling one with the weather being the main story, Gravois said. “We had record October rainfall, a little drying in November. Then the rains started again around Thanksgiving and it’s still wet.”

Gravois said every time field conditions have dried out, sugar recovery has increased. It’s really a decent crop, but an expensive crop to get out. ”There may be some abandoned acres after this harvest, where growers just can’t get equipment into the fields anymore, and some fields are actually underwater.”

A bright spot in this crop is that sugar prices have been in the mid-30 cent per pound range.

“However, the big misnomer is that just because you see a 33-cent price on the Internet or in the paper, the growers won’t be getting that price, since sugar is marketed year-round. The growers will actually be getting about 23 cents per pound, which is 2 to 3 cents higher than they received last year.”

The price of sugar has to stay high over a long period for growers to take advantage, since fuel, fertilizer and equipment costs are up as well.

“These prices are going to help a lot, but it’s not going to make anybody rich,” said Gravois.

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