By NIKKI BUSKEY
The Courier via Associated Press
HOUMA, La. (AP) -- Hurricane Isaac's winds paired with recent rains made a rough start for this year's sugar-cane grinding season. But industry officials are optimistic that weather will improve this month, helping the process along.
Jim Simon, general manager of the American Sugar Cane League, said several mills started grinding last week. The remaining mills are scheduled to begin work this week.
Grinding is the process of extracting juices from the sugar cane stalk. It begins in early fall and lasts through late December or early January.
The sugar cane industry has an annual impact of about $1.1 billion in Louisiana, Simon said.
Wallace Ellender, a local farmer and president of the American Sugar Cane League, said it's still too early to tell how this year's harvest will turn out. Industry officials don't usually know how much sugar they'll make until January.
"The first batter's up in the first inning of a nine-inning ball game," Ellender said.
He added that he's cautiously optimistic about the season. The price of sugar dropped this year, but it is not as low as it has been in the past. Fuel and equipment costs are also high, causing problems for farmers. Changing weather conditions could also determine the outcome of the season.
In August, Hurricane Isaac's gusts knocked down local sugar-cane fields. When the cane is lying down, it takes longer for wet fields to dry.
"The cane is down from the hurricane, and it's wet and muddy," said Michael Daigle, CEO of Lula-Westfield sugar mill in Assumption and vice president of the American Sugar Cane League. "Even though harvesters can pick up the cane, it's harder to de-shuck it."
That means a lot of mud and a lot of excess plant material is coming into the mill. In addition, it's taking farmers longer to harvest cane. Both of those issues slow the speed at which the mill can operate.
"The farmers are doing the best they can under the conditions that the good Lord gave them," Daigle said. "The mills have to run slower because of all this mud, and it's harder for the farmers to deliver cane so we're also running slower to help them out. We have to work together to get this cane processed."
Daigle said Lula-Westfield expects to process 2 million tons of cane this year, compared to more than 1.7 million tons last year.
But industry officials remain hopeful that the weather will improve. Typically, October is one of the driest months in Louisiana, Simon said.
"We're hopeful that the season will dry up and allow us to harvest in dry conditions," Simon said. "Wet weather will maximize the problems, and dry weather will minimize them."
The start of harvesting and grinding season also means many sugar-cane trucks are going to be hitting local roads. The huge, slow trucks can sometimes cause headaches for local commuters.
Truck drivers will be hauling an estimated 14 million tons of sugar cane to Louisiana mills along farm to market roads, Simon said.
"Our growers do the best job they can to make sure they can minimize their impact to the driving public," Simon said. "But drivers might want to leave a little early, slow down a bit and exercise some caution and patience."
Information from: The Courier, http://www.houmatoday.com
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.