Post-hurricane damage to cane crops in Caribbean & North America still being gauged

Published: 09/29/2017, 7:19:07 AM

The 2017 hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean battered sugarcane fields in countries in the Caribbean, Mexico and the U.S., but its potential impact on production costs may only become clear over the coming months, reports Sugaronline.

U.S. Sugar Corp., a sugarcane processor based in Clewiston, Florida, expects production costs to double next season due to damages caused by Hurricane Irma, said president Robert H. Buker during a roundtable discussion with agroindustry leaders, local officials and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Sept.18.

Sugarcane stalks which will be used to plant next year's crop, known as seed cane, have been weakened by the hurricane and can't be cut by machines. Instead, they will have to be cut by hand, increasing production costs and delaying the planting process.

"This year's crop, I don't think it is going to be hurt that bad, we will harvest all the acres ... (but we'll be) hurt on next year's crop," said Buker, during the roundtable streamed by public-access TV network Florida Channel.

"We are going to lose a month of time on planting, and crops need to go in the ground when they need to go in, not a month late."

Buker said the industry will need financial help due to increased planting costs, and must hire extra workers to perform the work manually.

U.S. Sugar has also suffered damage to its buildings and properties worth at least US$20 million, according to a statement by spokeswoman Judy Sanchez on Sept. 14, when the company's refinery in Clewiston was already back in operation and delivering sugar to customers.

The cane industry in Florida is expected to start its harvest on Oct. 1, when more information on Irma's widespread damage should be gauged, according to Phillip Hayes, spokesman for national sugar producers association American Sugar Alliance.

Cane producing regions in Louisiana and Texas, states accounting for 20% of U.S. total sugar production, haven't been directly hit by Hurricane Harvey, according to preliminary assessments by analyst João Paulo Botelho of consultancy INTL FCStone, and by the Louisiana sugarcane growers and processors non-profit association American Sugar Cane League.

"The Louisiana sugarcane industry was fortunate to have very little effects from Hurricane Harvey," said Herman Waguespack Jr., agronomist at American Sugar Cane League.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's regular survey for the upcoming October crop production report will include additional harvested acreage estimates for some crops affected by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, according to information released by its National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) on Sept. 22.

Official data on losses caused by Hurricane Katia in Mexico's most important cane producing state Veracruz were still not available by the end of September, according to cane industry association Unión Nacional de Cañeros.

INTL FCStone's Botelho said most of the mills in Veracruz are located in the state's interior, and should have been able to avoid major damages. Mexico is the world's sixth largest cane producer, and 15 out of its 42 mills are located in Veracruz.

On the other hand, Cuba was hardly hit by Hurricane Irma and about 400,000 hectares of its cane fields have been destroyed, according to the government news agency ACN, citing data by state-run sugarcane company Azcuba.

"This represents an important area in Cuba which accounts for about half of the island's sugarcane production," said Plínio Nastari, president at Brazil-based sugar and ethanol consultancy Datagro.

Cuba currently produces about 1.9 million tonnes of sugar per year.

Datagro, INTL FCStone and sugar industry leaders in the countries affected by the hurricanes are still collecting data on the state of the cane crops, post-storm.

So far, Datagro reduced by 25% its estimate for sugar production in the Dominican Republic for the current season, to 420,000 tonnes from 560,000 tonnes, after Hurricane Irma swept the island.