Abundant 2013 sugar crop blunted by low prices, freeze

Louisiana sugar-cane farmers have just completed harvesting a 2013 crop that came close to 2012’s record output, but banner yields this year will be blunted by the lowest sugar-cane prices in decades caused by a record amount of sugar imported from Mexico and other countries.

“We have an excess of sugar,” said Ben Legendre, head of the Audubon Sugar Institute, in St. Gabriel. “So, as a result, the price is down to some of the lowest levels in the last 30 years.”

Legendre said Mexico, which has a free-trade agreement with the U.S., exported 2 million tons of sugar into the U.S. in the past year. He said the U.S. Department of Agriculture also allowed into the U.S. hundreds of thousands of tons of sugar from other countries.

On Thursday, sugar slated for delivery in March was selling for 15.51 cents per pound, according Bloomberg.com.

The price is well below the 27 to 34 cents per pound paid in 2010, 2011 and 2012, said Jim Simon, general manager of the American Sugar Cane League, in Thibodaux, which has 450 member-farmers across south and central Louisiana.

“We’re stuck in a low-price situation,” Simon said. “But when it’s all said and done, we’re going to have a top-five crop.”

Farmers began the 2013 sugar year with pessimistic forecasts of low sugar yields brought on by a cold spring, and the year ended with freezes that affected some of the stalks. But in between the spring and winter, the crop really started to come in, with cane stalks packed with sugar. The cane was maturing so well, farmers postponed cranking up the John Deere harvesters a week and let the cane grow.

Legendre and Simon said 2013’s yield fell just short of the record crop output of 2012.

Legendre said estimates show in 2013, 32 to 36 tons of cane were produced per acre, 2 to 3 tons shy of 2012’s output. And there were 221 pounds of sugar produced per acre in 2013, off 9 pounds per acre when compared with 2012.

The high crop output this year came in spite of a freeze that hit around Thanksgiving.

Thomas Viator is a farmer who, with his brothers, sons, nephews and others, farms close to 6,000 acres in Iberia, St. Martin, Vermilion and Lafayette parishes. The Viator family’s company, A&M Farms, has been in business for decades. As their business grew, the brothers accumulated more land and more machinery.

Now, Viator said, A&M Farms takes care of 5,800 to 6,000 acres each year.

“Anytime you get a freeze, you will have some damage in your cane the following year,” Viator said.

Cane farmers each year plow up the roots and replant cane in a percentage of the land they farm. The majority of the land, however, grows cane from the same roots as the season before, and freezes can stunt the growth of cane growing from the roots left in the fields.

“Through the years, sugar is like a roller coaster,” Viator said. “This is a bad year, not only the price but the weather.”

Viator said he also worries about cane farmers farther north, in Avoyelles, Rapides and St. Landry parishes, which experienced a more severe slide in temperatures than south Louisiana.

Those farmers, he said, could suffer from bad crops and bottomed-out prices, which could lead them to convert to other crops such as soybeans or sorghum, which could lead one or more of Louisiana’s 11 sugar mills to close its doors.

Viator said on good years, A&M Farms buys new equipment. On bad years, they do not.

“This year we’re going to repair our equipment,” he said.