Most seasons, Louisiana sugarcane producer Denny Lanaux’s crop survives a number of bumps in the road. Whether it’s a hurricane, rainy weather, a new disease or pest or the encroachment from urban development, he takes the hit and keeps on going.
It’s that philosophy that has kept him in business.
Lanaux produces about 3,800 acres of sugarcane annually in St. Charles, St. John and Lafourche parishes in Louisiana. One farm, Esperanza Plantation, is nestled along River Road, a few hundred feet from the Mississippi River, and is less that 10 miles west of New Orleans. I-310, a short spur of I-10, runs along the southeast side of the farm.
While sugarcane is a way of life here, the area has become highly desirable for residential development, and some commercial enterprises have located to the area as well. To the north is a significant amount of environmentally sensitive wetlands.
“You always feel like you could be urbanized out,” Lanaux said. “But I’ve had good landlords who understand. I’ve been farming in this place, my original place, since 1979. I’ve lost little pieces of it, but it comes with the territory. If you lose land, you just move on.”
Lanaux has had to make some changes on his farming operations as residential development encroaches, including planting sugarcane varieties resistant to cane borers “so I won’t have to spray as much by airplane.”
Lanaux grew up on a sugarcane farm, where he learned the nuances of production. His first experience farming on his own, in 1979, was with soybeans. A disastrous year in 1986 pushed him back to doing what he knew best – sugarcane. His first sugarcane crop to the mill was 1988. He’s been at it ever since.
“I knew way more about cane than about soybeans,” admits Lanaux, who started out with about 1,200 acres of sugarcane. “My dad, (Denny), was a cane farmer and my dad’s brother, Pete Lanaux, is still a cane farmer, at 87 years old.”
It is an often demanding crop, with producers juggling huge needs for labor with outdated equipment. Ask just about any sugarcane farmer what his least favorite activity is, and most will say planting.
“Today, we have fewer farms, and the farms are larger. If you have a larger farm, you have a larger planting,” Lanaux said. “We are still using the old equipment to plant. The machine we use to plant our cane is almost my age. One of them was built in the 1960s, and I’m still using it. We’re just not mechanized enough. We’re still planting the old system.
“It is just hard, a slow process. If I can plant 50 acres a day, I’ve done a great job. For soybean farmer, that’s a rotten day planting.”
The planting operation, a procession of equipment and at least 24 hands, plods along at anywhere from .35 miles per hour to .55 miles per hour.
Variety is one of the most important factors to the success of a sugarcane producer, and Lanaux noted that few varieties have yielded well lately. He doesn’t blame breeders, however.
“It’s just Mother Mature. We have smut, we have rust. We use fungicides now, and we never did in the past. For the last two years, the crops have been light, really light. Thank goodness for the price.”
Lanaux added that the leading sugarcane variety “tends to not canopy as quickly so by the time you get to older stubble, you can get a lot of grass in there, which can make it fail.”
In mid-July, Lanaux was working up fallow ground, subsoiling the middles, putting up 6-foot rows and trying to keep it weed free, mostly with shots of Sencor and 2,4-D products. Weed control of fallow ground is a key to maintaining good yields through older stubble, noted Lanaux. His three most troublesome weeds are johnsongrass, bermudagrass and Raoul grass.
“You want to keep bermudagrass out of your fallow program so you can get a good head start on it. I’ll apply Roundup for control. Once I plant, I might use Command.”
It’s economical for Lanaux to try to get as much as he can out of his stubble. “With the high price of sugar, 30-ton cane is like 40-ton cane back when prices were lower, and nobody busted out 40-ton cane,” said Lanaux, who has some fifth-year stubble this year.”
All of Lanaux’s cane goes to Raceland Raw Sugar. After that it is trucked to Dominos where it is refined.
Lanaux still burns his cane stubble after harvest, but that hasn’t presented much of a problem for urban dwellers. “You just pick a day when the wind is right and you go for it.”
Early in the season, the state’s sugarcane crop was looking like a near record for yield. But Hurricane Isaac took a little starch out of those early projections. There were reports of lodging in Florida and Louisiana, and cane planting lagged behind in Louisiana due to the storm’s aftermath.
Lanaux’s farm was no exception. In late September, local mills were starting to crank up, but Lanaux was still planting cane. “I’ve had nothing but rain, rain and rain. On August 9, I had 300 acres planted. Right now, I have about 800 planted. Besides Hurricane Isaac, I’ve had two flooding rains, one a 9-inch rain, the other was a 5-inch rain. I’m almost positive that Isaac will affect my yields. The mills have already started up and the sugar is coming in low. I think the cane spent a lot of energy trying to erect itself rather than producing sugar.”
LSU AgCenter economist Kurt Guidry said sugarcane, above all other Louisiana crops, suffered the greatest economic loss from the storm – about $60 million, which equates to an 8 percent loss in yield.
In September, USDA projected Louisiana sugarcane yields at 30 tons per acre, down 1 ton from the August forecast, but still up nearly 2.5 tons from 2011. Louisiana farmers planted 420,000 acres of sugarcane in 2012, up 10,000 acres from last year.
The state’s sugarcane producers are expected to produce 12.6 million tons of sugarcane this season, an increase of 1.28 million tons over 2011. A little over 31 million tons of sugarcane are expected to be produced this year in the United States in four states, Louisiana, Florida, Hawaii and Texas.