With the threat of Hurricane Nate erased, leaving Iberville Parish virtually untouched, its farmers and county agent expect it will be a good year for the sugar cane harvest.
Two farmers, representing over 10,000 acres of sugar cane in Iberville and West Baton Rouge parishes, and LSU AgCenter county agent Steve Borel say they predict a good crop for the 2017 harvest.
Of course, the true success of any year’s sugar cane harvest will depend on the price raw sugar will fetch at the end of the grind, the term farmers and sugar mill operators use to describe the harvest and process of milling cane.
Because of the huge investment equipment to farm sugar cane requires, in most cases families involved in farming it remain sugar farmers for generations.
Mitchel Ourso, for example, along with his brothers are the third generation of sugar cane farmers in his family and his sons – he has three – are the fourth.
“I’ve been farming since I was old enough to get on a tractor with Dad, so since I was about 10,” Ourso said. That means he’s closing in on 50 years in family-owned or operated sugar cane fields.
His two brothers, Donnie and Artie and their sons, work about 8,000 acres of sugar cane in West Baton Rouge Parish, including land formerly part of Poplar Grove and Rosedale plantations.
Ourso, a member of the Iberville Parish Council, and his sons farm about 2,500 pounds of sugar cane in what he calls Richland, an area just north of White Castle.
Some of the land is on Nottaway Plantation land while some is part of the former Sandy Grove, he said.
“It looks like it’s going to be a good season…well above average,” Ourso said. “The cane is thick and it’s tall.”
Like any farmer, no matter the crop, he said weather is always a factor in the success of the harvest and during an interview late last week, Ourso said then Tropical Storm Nate was churning in the Gulf of Mexico, creating concerns of muddy fields.
The storm strengthened to a Category 1 hurricane just before making landfall at the mouth of the Mississippi River early Saturday night and again a few hours later on the Mississippi Gulf.
Being on the west side of the storm, the weak side of hurricanes, Iberville Parish did not get “a whole bunch” of rain, according to another sugar cane farmer, Travis Medine.
“I think the crop looks pretty good overall,” said the young farmer, who works about 1,000 acres in the Bayou Goula area and another 2,000 in West Baton Rouge near Erwinville.
Medine is another sugar cane farmer who is the product of a long line of sugar cane farmers.
“My brothers, Trent and Tracy, and I represent the fifth generation of the Medine family to farm,” he said. “My dad Brian is still working with us too.”
County agent Steve Borel, who represents Iberville and West Baton Rouge parishes for the LSU AgCenter, said Iberville Parish has about 36,000 acres planted with sugar cane, compared to about 15,000 in West Baton Rouge, a much smaller parish.
He said sugar cane farmers are averaging 28 or 29 tons per acre, making the output about average for what he called “old stubble,” that is it’s cane that has been grown from the remains of cane planted two or three years ago.
“It’s going to get better for farmers with new plantings,” Borel said, like a farmer he knows of who is getting 32 tons to the acre this season.
While sugar mills are hesitant to release the numbers on their yield, the county agent said he estimates this year’s crop is producing 240 pounds of raw sugar on the high end and about 180 on the low end.
Borel said even if Hurricane Nate had dumped a lot of rain on Iberville Parish, farmers would have continued to harvest, although the sugar yield falls on a per ton basis when cane comes in with a lot of mud mixed into it.
“You can’t stop,” he said. “The mill runs 24/7, so even if it gets sloppy they have to keep cutting.”
(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on the sugar cane harvest and its economic effect on Iberville Parish. Only the chemical plants produce more tax revenue for the parish and municipalities than sugar and little else is farmed in the parish beside cane.)