NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Louisiana's sugarcane crop appears to have suffered less damage from Hurricane Isaac than first thought, according to one expert.
But Kenneth Gravois with the Louisiana State University AgCenter said next year's crop probably will be hurt worse than this year's because about half the seed cane was planted late.
With about four-fifths of the cane still in the fields and a harvest that runs into early January, he wouldn't make fresh predictions on the total crop loss from Isaac. After the storm came ashore Aug. 28, flattening many fields in sugar-producing coastal parishes, estimates of the loss ranged as high as $60 million.
Farmers are hoping for good weather through the remainder of the harvest season. There's always the chance a run of wet weather could bring in gobs of mud on the cane. Some sugar would be lost as mud and sugar were separated from crushed cane at the mill.
"We knew we had a good crop going in, and it looks like we've got a good crop coming out the other side" of Hurricane Isaac, Gravois said.
Isaac flattened all 1,000 acres of cane that Gravois' cousin, Gary Gravois, was growing in Napoleonville. But even then, Gary Gravois said, he was cautiously optimistic because the winds appeared to have blown straight across the fields. The cane "all went in one direction - it wasn't tangled," he said.
Within two weeks, he said, "the crop started going back toward the sun."
About 380,000 acres of the 425,000 planted this year were damaged by the storm.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's September monthly forecast estimates Louisiana's production this year at nearly 12.8 million tons of cane sugar - up 1.43 million tons from last year, with yield at 30 tons per acre. Florida, which planted 410,000 acres, is expected to produce 15.6 million tons.
Texas and Hawaii, the other major sugarcane states, have 46,000 and 17,000 acres respectively, and are expected to produce 1.6 million and 1.4 million tons of sugar.
Last year's crop, when prices were at a 40-year high, was worth $638.4 million to Louisiana farmers, up from $503.4 million in 2010, according to the AgCenter's annual crop summary. Factories got another $443.1 million, according to the American Sugar Cane League. Prices have fallen below the levels of either of those two years, but are above those of 2009, when the net farm value was $447 million.
Early in September, the AgCenter estimated hurricane losses to sugarcane at about $60 million.
The AgCenter's Gravois said the early loss estimate included increased planting costs, which affect future years more than the current crop. Each year's planting provides four years of cane, and about half Louisiana's seed cane had been planted before the hurricane.
"Our crop was planted late," Gravois said. "We did finish getting it planted. Normally, next year our later-planted cane wouldn't produce as well. But it's better than not getting it planted at all."
If seed cane is straight and tall, each acre of harvested cane can plant 5 to 8 acres of land. Crooked canes must be cut up for billet planting, which can cut an acre of seed cane to as little as 3 planted acres.
As to losses for the current crop, Gravois said, "It's always the harvest conditions after a hurricane that will give you a plus or minus. Right now we have excellent weather and the harvest is going well. I would put it at less than $60 million."