Farmers & BSI finding the sweetest sugarcane to harvest first

By William Ysaguirre
Freelance Reporter

The 2017-18 sugar cane harvest is about to start next month, but with Belize no longer having access to preferential markets and guaranteed quotas a premium prices, the open competition of the world market has growers and processors united to find ways to get the maximum amount of sugar out of their cane.

In the face of hot competition from larger and more efficient producers like Brazil and Australia, the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association and the Belize Sugar Industries Ltd/American Sugar Refiners (BSI/ASR) have quietly buried the hatchet and resolved their past differences on the sugar cane purchase agreement, and are now implementing a pre-season cane testing program to determine which farmers’ sugar cane has the highest sucrose content, which in turn will decide whose cane will be harvested first. The leaders of six harvesting groups, representing the three cane farmers’ associations, signed up for the Pre-Harvest Cane Quality Program in Guinea Grass Village in the Orange Walk district on Tuesday, November 14.

The program is still in its experimental stage, but the fierce, price-cutting competition in an open market has forced farmers to come round to a more enlightened approach.
ASR’s Vice President for International relations Mac Mclachlan explained the hard price realities that made the cane farmers see the light. A year ago, world raw sugar prices were at U.S. 24 cents per pound, but now they’re around U.S. 14.4 cents per pound. A week ago on November 8, the International Sugar Association price was at U.S. 14.9 cents per pound for raw sugar, while refined white sugar was at 17.73 cents per pound. This is why ASR/BSI is investing heavily in processing equipment to produce a direct-consumption “Plantation White” sugar that doesn’t need any further refining, that Caribbean consumers want to buy, and which will fetch a much better price in CARICOM, than raw sugar on the world market.

The Sugar Industry Research and Development Institute (SIRDI) has been doing an industry wide survey for months, collecting data the varieties of cane being grown by the farmers, and the quality of the cane; not only to determine an accurate estimate of the total quantity of sugar cane in the fields, but also to assess which cane was the ripest and which should be harvested first.
This Pre-Harvest Cane Quality Program has involved the participation of six of the 18 branches of the BSCFA. The participating farmers have agreed to be patient, to restrain their eagerness to collect their first payment of the crop, and to allow the SIRDI technicians to dictate when will be the very best time to harvest, for a even bigger payday when they deliver sugar cane of the very best quality they can produce. The Chairman of the Sugar Cane Production Committee Dr. Carlos Itza explained that the long term objective is to develop a national harvesting plan.

This means SIRDI extension officers, along with BSCFA technicians, will be sampling farmers’ cane on site in the field and using portable refractometers to test the ‘Brix’ or sugar content of the cane juice in the cane. The program has also benefited from a US$300,000 donation from the American chocolate company, Hershey’s, to acquire the testing equipment.

It’s a win-win patnership for Hershey’s representative Perry Cerminara who explained the rationale. “Since we made our initial investment two years ago, we’ve been thrilled by the success of the farmer training program: 378 farmers have learned best practices that have allowed them to reduce environmental impacts, battle pests, apply fertilizers and more. Benchmarks for cost savings, herbicide reduction, and fertilizer application efficiency were all exceeded, which translated into a total increase in incomes, of over $630,000 BZ.
The first move to better cane quality was to reduce the kill-to-mill time, to eliminate the long lines where the sugar cane might sit two-to-three days after it was cut, before it was delivered and milled. The aim was to reduce this kill-to mill time to four hours, to keep to an absolute minimum, the amount of spoilage that might occur in the cane after it was cut, before it was milled. Since 2014, the cane farmers came around to accept this delivery by appointment system, and saw the benefits when the factory produced even more sugar than the year before, even though the factory had milled far less cane.

It’s a radical departure from the traditional practice where the farmers, all with outstanding loans at the bank borrowed during the out-of-crop period, would clamor to be at the front of the queue to harvest their cane, to have some cash payment coming in. This wasn’t necessarily the wisest course; for if the cane wasn’t fully mature and ripened to its optimum sugar quality, analysis results coming back from the lab would be dismally poor and rank the farmer’s cane at the bottom of the cane quality standings. This in turn would impact the price that BSI would pay the farmer for his cane, which could be over a dollar less than the average cane price being paid; and as much as two dollars less than the best price per tonne being paid to farmers with the best quality. This is because the processor (BSI/ASR) is actually paying for sugar, not simply cane by weight. It would have profited the farmer to wait a few months, until the cane was really ripe before harvesting, so that the sugar content would have been higher and the price would be more.

Sugar cane is about 13 per cent fiber and 87 per cent juice. If that juice has a sugar purity of 17-18 per cent (‘Pol’ is the industry term), that translates to about 15 percent sugar content in the cane. When that cane is ground, and the sugar processed, it can yield a TCTS of 8.0 (Tonnes Cane to produce a Tonne of Sugar), or about 12.5 per cent sugar yield by weight. The Belize industry average has hovered around 9.0 TCTS, because the good quality cane is averaged out with lower quality cane with a TCTS of 10.0, meaning a 10 per cent sugar yield. Immature cane can have a TCTS of 12, meaning it will yield only 8 per cent sugar by weight. Really poor quality cane which has fermented while waiting in line 3-4 days before delivery can have a TCTS as high as 16, meaning a sugar yield as low as 6 per cent. BSI has had policy to reject such poor quality cane, because processing will cause more trouble than it’s worth. Such cane will introduce so much impurities into the factory process, that it will cost more than the sugar’s worth to process.

For years, the farmers had resisted a system of payment based on sugar quality, and BSI’s attempt in 2010 to introduce a new piece of equipment – a core sampler, to get a representative sample from a truck load of cane, met with such fierce and violent resistance, that a cane farmer was killed in the protests.

Cane quality isn’t the only yield issue that SIRDI is attacking; it is also working to help the farmers improve their sugar cane yield per acre. In Belize, farmers typically harvest 16-18 tonnes per acre, which is far below the industry standard; in other parts of the world the yield is 32 tonnes per acre! For a Belizean farmer harvesting 18 tonnes per acre, even if he has the very best cane quality of 8.0 TCTS, he will be producing 2.25 Tonnes of sugar per acre. This is hardly competitive with European beet sugar.

In Europe, beet farmers typically harvest 58.2 tonnes per hectare, or 23.55 tonnes per acre. With a sucrose content of 13-20 per cent in the beets, beet farmers are producing anywhere from 2.8 tonnes, to as much as 4.2 tonnes of sugar per acre. In comparison, the more successful cane farmers in Brazil are producing 32 tonnes of sugar cane per acre, yielding 4.8 tonnes of sugar per acre, which is more than European beets.

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