Attracted to the sugarcane business by its promise of steadier yields and prices, they are pushing the boundaries of Louisiana’s cane belt northward and westward into areas where crops like soybeans and corn have traditionally dominated.

The fields at the LSU AgCenter Dean Lee Research and Extension Center have seen all sorts of crop trials over the years — but never any involving sugarcane.

That's because the facility is located near Alexandria, long considered too far north to cultivate the tropical plant without putting it at significant risk of freeze damage in winter.

A growing number of farmers, however, have been challenging that notion in recent years. Attracted to the sugarcane business by its promise of steadier yields and prices, they are pushing the boundaries of Louisiana’s cane belt northward and westward into areas where crops like soybeans and corn have traditionally dominated.

But because most cane production remains concentrated in southern parishes, growers have little data on how well different varieties stand up to central Louisiana’s deeper, more frequent freezes.

Under the blazing sun on Aug. 14, a crew of scientists walked through a field at Dean Lee, pulling stalks of sugarcane from a tractor-drawn cart and dropping them into the red soil below. It marked the first time in the center’s decades-long history that cane had been planted.

With the closest sugarcane farmer a few miles south in the Lecompte area, Dean Lee is now home to one of the northernmost cane fields in the state — and world.

"We are excited to establish a footprint for sugarcane research at the Dean Lee Research and Extension Center," said Tara Smith, director of the AgCenter Central Region. "The research goals aim to address some of producers' production and pest management concerns."

"This new initiative was prompted by input from local sugarcane producers who participated in an advisory meeting," said Rogers Leonard, AgCenter associate vice president. "These stakeholders identified specific needs that could be addressed by the LSU AgCenter's sugarcane research and extension faculty."

Scientists will work to determine which varieties — both commercially available and experimental ones — tolerate colder winters. Because multiple crops of sugarcane are grown from a single planting, it's crucial that the plants are able to survive winter weather.

AgCenter pest management specialist Al Orgeron, with assistance from AgCenter sugarcane specialist Kenneth Gravois, is overseeing the project. It is funded by the nonprofit American Sugar Cane League.

"This is a farmer-driven project," Gravois said. "The cold tolerance work will augment ongoing work in variety testing and weed control work done by Dr. Orgeron."

The project is important as more farmers ponder making the jump to sugarcane — a trend that is expected to continue.

"Sugarcane has been pretty level in terms of price and production," said Herman Waguespack, an agronomist with the league. "Grain commodities are up and down."

Local data will help central Louisiana's burgeoning segment of sugarcane growers realize greater success, he said.

"They would like to have a little bit more information based on their soil types and their environment," Waguespack said. "Freeze tolerance and cold tolerance is a very important trait for us."