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Louisiana, Florida Sugarcane Industries Miles Apart, Share the Same State

CLEWISTON, Fla. — The first thing anyone familiar with Louisiana sugarcane notices in Florida is the big, white tassel on cane stalks there. 

A delegation of Louisiana sugarcane growers got a chance to see them on a tour of the U.S. Sugar Corporation’s lands south of Lake Okeechobee. The group came down from Orlando where they attended the recent American Farm Bureau annual convention and said sugarcane tassels were not the only surprise they encountered.

White tassels grow from stalks of sugarcane in Florida, south of Lake Okeechobee.  Although most varieties of sugarcane grow tassels, they are rarely seen in Louisiana, as the crop is harvested before the plant flowers. Florida’s growing season is usually twice the length of Louisiana’s, so the white crowns are a frequent sight there. 

White tassels grow from stalks of sugarcane in Florida, south of Lake Okeechobee.  Although most varieties of sugarcane grow tassels, they are rarely seen in Louisiana, as the crop is harvested before the plant flowers. Florida’s growing season is usually twice the length of Louisiana’s, so the white crowns are a frequent sight there. 

“They have a refinery attached to the mill and it’s fuelled by the mill,” said Greg Gravois, a delegation member who farms sugarcane in St. James Parish. “It looks like a money-making machine. They have a from-the-ground-to-shelf process there.  We have some integration like that here, but not like that.” 

Gravois was quick to point out that US Sugar had all 200,000 acres of theirs within a 50-mile radius, which made things a lot easier for both integration and transportation. A rail system transports all of that acreage from the fields to the mill at a rate of 1,000 acres a day.

“Their rail system looked pretty effective,” Gravois said. “It also makes a lot less waste and the sugar content goes up. In Louisiana, we have to throw it on the ground at the mill and the more you handle the cane, the more it drains the juice. There it goes straight into the system. 

“It couldn’t be done here in Louisiana as spread out as we are,” he added. “There, though, it’s a necessity because their highways limit truck weight at 37,500 lbs. Here it’s more than double that, which makes me wonder how individual producers function.”

Florida has long competed with Louisiana for the most sugarcane acreage in the U.S. and it’s only been in recent years that Louisiana has had comparable acres to Florida, with each state growing about 400,000 acres. 

However, in Florida, they harvest from October through April, more than double Louisiana’s growing season. Combined with their generally warmer weather, Florida produces more sugar than Louisiana, a difference noted by Mike Melancon, a sugarcane grower from St. Martin Parish who was also part of the delegation.  

“They don’t cultivate as intensely as we do, but they get it done a lot more easily than we do,” Melancon said. “They rely on a lot of custom contractors. It’s more efficient, because they don’t have to do anything different from farm to farm. They do a very good job of maximizing the employees they have, running a lot of acres with a lot less employees.”

Sugarcane harvesters line up four abreast in U.S. Sugar’s fields near Clewiston. The harvesters take in as much as 1,000 acres a day and harvest 24 hours per day, seven days per week during the six and a half months of Florida’s harvest. The cane carts pulled by tractors will dump the billeted sugarcane into rail cars at elevators scattered throughout the company’s 200,000 acres, where locomotives will pick them up and then bring them to the mill. 

Sugarcane harvesters line up four abreast in U.S. Sugar’s fields near Clewiston. The harvesters take in as much as 1,000 acres a day and harvest 24 hours per day, seven days per week during the six and a half months of Florida’s harvest. The cane carts pulled by tractors will dump the billeted sugarcane into rail cars at elevators scattered throughout the company’s 200,000 acres, where locomotives will pick them up and then bring them to the mill. 

All that efficiency come with a price, however and Florida has a crop rotation system for sugarcane like other states do for row crops. Steve Stiles, Area III Manager for U.S. Sugar, said it doesn’t happen for very long, but having fallow fields is a necessary part of the system.

“We’ll try to do what we call a fallow,” Stiles said. “It’s not a 12-month fallow, it’s just a fallow from November, when we harvest it, until when we plant it next year. So you might get 10 months worth of fallow. We’ll usually try to get a cover crop of some kind, either corn or beans or leaf vegetables.” 

Even with the fallow system, the soils still have to be replenished with the rich phosphorous that created the Everglades Agricultural Area. Sometimes that’s managed by controlled flooding from pumping stations which mimic the natural flow that used to happen from both Lake Okeechobee as well as hurricanes. Judy Sanchez, senior director of corporate communications and public affairs for U.S. Sugar said working with intense environmental concerns is part of raising cane in this area.

“What has been important is to modify the way that we farm our land,” Sanchez said. “The way that we move water off of the land in our farming areas means not moving nutrient-rich water south into the system where it’s a problem, as opposed to being an asset on the farm.”

Sanchez said the system has been a success. The state of Florida has demanded a 25 percent reduction in phosphates from the waterways and U.S. sugar has reduced it an average of 56 percent over the last 20 years. Since 2012, they’ve reduced it 79 percent. That’s important, as Florida charges 25 dollars an acre for the privilege to farm this land, with the money going to create buffer zones around the Everglades that protect its sensitive grasses. 

Protecting both the environment and the sugarcane industry is something both Louisiana and Florida have in common, as well as moving water around. Water management was on Gravois’ mind, especially given the droughts Louisiana has experienced in recent years. 

“Rainfall has not been as adequate as it should be in recent years,” Gravois said. “Irrigation protects the crop in Florida during those droughts. That’s something I think we can take back home—how to manage that water to increase yields.” 

Another thing both states share is dealing with price issues. Sugar was a sticking point in the recent Transpacific Partnership trade deal, namely, allowing other countries access to our markets. Darci Vetter, chief agricultural negotiator, U.S. Trade Representative’s office, said it was a careful balancing act that did allow access based on the current price.

“First and foremost, U.S. sugar is allowed to meet the majority of the needs that we assessed are the demands in the U.S.”  Vetter said. “But, if U.S. sugar production has a bad year, if production overall goes down, there are ways that we provide additional sugar access to countries.”

With sugar prices stagnant right now, it shows that even if sugar production in Louisiana and Florida are miles apart, the state of the sugar industry is tied closely together no matter what’s on top of the stalk.