This morning at 10:00, the 2014-2015 sugar cane grinding season finally opened, allowing the country to breathe a collective sigh of relief, given that a month ago, the season and the future of this critical industry were in doubt.

But after a fractious fortnight in cane country, which ultimately led to the splintering of the 55 year old Cane Farmers Association, today it was business as usual at the Tower Hill Sugar Factory.

Our news team was in Orange Walk for a front-row seat. Daniel Ortiz reports:

Daniel Ortiz reporting
This morning, the first cane deliveries arrived through the BSI's gates, starting the season much to the delight of all the stakeholders.

The Minister of Natural Resources and the representative from ASR sat this morning and were featured on a morning talk show held by the media houses in the north. They discussed the start of the crop

Belizario Carballo - CFO, BSI
"A crop that would normally start in late November or early December. We are now starting in January, two day later that last year. Last year we started on the 24th and today 26th, we are starting off the crop."

Mac McLachlan- VP, International Relations, ASR Group
"We are very happy that this day has come. We are happy to be moving on with the crop. It's time to do that and I think we are in a position now that we can get on and do what we have to do that's to make sure we are here."

Belizario Carballo - CFO, BSI
"It is pleasing and I see a lot of stakeholders here gathered a bit impromptu in a sense, nothing organized, it just something that came up impromptu this morning with coverage here at the factory gate to witness the first trucks rolling in."

But while it's a good day for the embattled industry, on the minds of the millers is that work is far behind.

John Gillett - Factory Manager, BSI
"We are stating now for the 42 days late, which in fact 7 weeks. At this time we should have had maybe over 300, 000 tonnes cane milled already."

So, now the factory owners must work very hard to keep the production at its peak output, sometimes pushing pass efficiency numbers from past grinding seasons.

Belizario Carballo - CFO, BSI
"We certainly will seek to do as much as we can. Last year we started around the same time and we were able to do 1.2 million tonnes of cane, but that took us into the first week of July. Any time after mid-June and the rains can really play a number on you, so it is really weather depending. We have started off today with 6,000 tonnes and we will be stepping that up to 7,000 tonnes a day pretty soon, in the next few days. We are hoping to average around that level."

John Gillett - Factory Manager, BSI
"After we have settled down and evaluated the performance of the factory, we intend to increase that marginally, probably going up towards the 7,600 - 7,800 tonnes per day."

Mac McLachlan- VP, International Relations, ASR Group
"It's very hard to project that issue at the moment. I think you are right, I think there will be standing cane left at the end of this crop and I don't think there is any point in not addressing that issue."

There are now 3 associations, so how will the delivery of cane now work?

Belizario Carballo - CFO, BSI
"We have to re-organize the delivery arrangements, because the delivery of the cane is organized by what we called quality test groups and before those all came under one banner, the BSCFA, now that you have three associations, it was necessary for us to reorganize those test groups and to then come up with a schedule of delivery to start the crop."

Jose Novelo - Chairman, Sugar Cane Production Committee
"We are scheduling based on association and we are also instituting a system where we have 24 hour delivery. And so within that 24 hour delivery, every association gets their proportionate amount of cane to deliver per day."

But, each farmer must swallow a bitter pill, since everyone accepts that about 200 thousand tonnes of cane is in peril of not being harvested, the governing body which oversees cane deliveries must make hard choices to allow for equity in the delivery process. If rains of June and July get in the way of a prolonged season, the best that each farmer can expect to deliver is only 80% of their investment. The Sugar Cane Production Committee has to ensure that each farmer gets to deliver 4/5 of their cane.

Jose Novelo - Chairman, Sugar Cane Production Committee
"We want the group leaders to be responsible and to give an opportunity to all cane farmers to deliver their proportionate amount of cane. What will also happen is that the SCPC will be monitoring very carefully the deliveries of the different farmers and whenever we see that they have reached, let's say 80% of their deliveries, then we will tell them, look, we think you should now give the opportunity to those that have not delivered any cane, to deliver a similar percent. So that in that way then, we can ensure fairness, we can ensure equity and we can ensure that everybody remains in the system."

Daniel Ortiz
"They all have their requirements and their responsibilities with the banks and so 80% of their investment, they may still lose money."

Jose Novelo - Chairman, Sugar Cane Production Committee
"There is not much that we can do about losses right now. The fact of the matter is that we might end up with a short crop. That period is actually determined towards the end of the crop whether we can rainy periods or not. Indeed if we don't have too much rain, I am sure that we will be able to deliver most of the cane that is in the field."

That limitation aside, everyone looking forward to make the best effort to save as much of the crop as possible.

Mac McLachlan- VP, International Relations, ASR Group
"I hope that this goes down as a success story for the industry and in the future where, through difficult times we've had, we can now perhaps look more to unity and moving forward together and tackling the various different challenges that we have to tackle."

Belizario Carballo - CFO, BSI
"We are certainly looking forward to making the best of it. I think that there is a lot of enthusiasm on behalf of all farmers, on behalf of us as well at the mill, to make the best out of this crop as possible."

So, to reiterate a few important points from our story, first, by the count of the factory, the season is behind by 42 days, or 6 weeks. Next, if the season had started at the expected date, approximately, 300,000 tonnes of cane would already have been milled. That's important because there is an estimate of 1.477 million tonnes of cane in the ground, and the factory owners believe that at peak efficiency, they can grind 1.2 million. That leaves 277 thousand tonnes of cane that is jeopardy of not being harvested, which would not have happened if there was no delay. And finally, the Sugar Cane Production Committee is trying to ensure that there is an equitable allowance for delivery among all cane farmers. Worst case scenario is that each of the approximately 5,500 farmers can only deliver 80% of their product, which will mean losses. The factors which dictate how big those loses will be arrival of the June and July rains, and the amount of downtime that the factory has with breakdowns.

How A Sugar Mill Works

While we were at the factory today, the staff allowed us to look around for ourselves and see the first few tonnes of cane being processed from the delivery phase to the grinding phase. The factory manager gave us a very brief explanation of how it works:

John Gillett - Factory Manager, BSI
"First thing that happens, the cane is weighed on the 100 tonnes scales that we have. After the cane is weighed, it's discharged into the cross carriers. The cross carriers feeds it into the feeder carrier. After the feeder carrier, we pass the cane through a set of cane knives and then through a set of shredders, which prepares the cane for milling. In other words, what it does, it shreds the cane and we referred to it as a perforation index and gets the cane condition, so that milling can start. It's about 16-18 hours, because we have to mill the cane, we have to go through the entire processing and then the crystallization process and all of that process will take roughly about 16 hours before we produce sugar."

Today, the farmers and millers aimed to have 6,000 tonnes of cane delivered to start with today. After the warm up days, the millers will push the efficiency of the factory to as high as is possible. This means 24 hour work days for the factory staff and the farmers who are cued up to deliver.

Channel 7

Let the sugar season begin

After a long-drawn-out impasse that almost dealt a devastating blow to the local sugar industry recently, the quiescent mills at the Tower Hill sugar factory finally kicked into action shortly before midday today, signaling the long-awaited start of the 2014/2015 sugar cane harvest season, known to the caneros as “La Zafra”.

The starting date for the delayed season was finalized last Thursday, January 22, in Orange Walk Town during a consultation session with government affiliates and the principals of the three cane farmers associations – two of which are new: the Corozal Sugar Cane Producers Association (CSPA) and the Progressive Sugar Cane Producers Association (PSPA), both of which emerged during the recent splintering of the 55-year old Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA), which still represents the majority of the cane farmers who do business with factory owners, Belize Sugar Industries (BSI), and its transnational parent company, American Sugar Refineries (ASR).

While all stakeholders were in high spirits – especially the cañeros who were eager to deliver their product, even if it means getting the short end of the deal – today’s event seemed almost inconceivable just a few weeks ago when uncertainty loomed as the BSCFA and BSI/ASR remained locked in a bitter dispute over a contentious commercial purchasing agreement, which was lately accepted by the BSCFA general membership, many of whom considered its terms inequitable and reluctantly approved the agreement “under duress”.

Nevertheless, BSCFA Orange Walk branch chairman, Alfredo Ortega, who had engaged in a campaign to have his association reject the compromise agreement that they agreed to sign last Sunday, January 18, maintained his displeasure with the contract, but mentioned that for now, they will work along with the millers for the betterment of the industry.

“It has been a very rough road up to this point because of what has transpired, but farmers are eager to deliver their cane because if they don’t deliver, they don’t make any money from what they have invested. Also, we want our farmers to deliver their cane because it is very important since many of us owe the banks and other financial institutions. We will continue our fight [because] we are not in agreement with what transpired, but the majority has said that they are willing to work, and we have to work with it [the agreement]. We remain firm in what our thoughts are in regards to the agreement, and we hope that one day that can be changed and things can be more beneficial for the farmers, but in the meantime, we will be working together with them so that all of us have the equal opportunity to deliver our material to the mill,” Ortega said.

Ortega expressed gratitude for the good weather which has so far prevailed and made it possible for them to deliver, but noted that inadequate sugar roads that some farmers must utilize to transport their cane to the mills are still in need of urgent attention.

Despite the tension between the BSCFA and the sugar producers, ASR’s Vice President of International Relations, Mac McLachlan, told the media that it is time to look to the future, and that their challenges can be worked out if all parties sit at the table and make collaborative decisions for the industry.

“I think we are in a position now where we can get on and do what we have to do. So far, things have moved in the right direction, and I don’t see any reason why that should change. Everybody wants to improve this industry and make it sustainable for the future – those who don’t want to do that, I don’t think there’s a place for them in that discussion”, he declared.

McLachlan added that the company welcomes the opportunity to work collectively with the three cane farmers associations for sustainability of all industry stakeholders, and looks forward to addressing the current “bottlenecks” in the industry, such as the prickly issue related to the payment for bagasse.

Chairman of the Sugar Industry Control Board (SICB), Gabriel Martinez, shared the same sentiments and acknowledged that the way forward will be challenging, but maintained that all cañeros will be included in future initiatives, starting with the strategic development plan which will be drafted over the next 12 months.

“I feel very happy that we have come to this day”, he said, adding that the most important thing is for all parties to have a cordial relationship in order to ensure a productive sugar cane crop.

Sugar Cane Production Committee (SCPC) chairman, Jose Novelo, explained that the associations will deliver on a 24-hour schedule according to the quantity of cane that they possess.

He affirmed that due to the impasse and other factors, there will be cane left in the fields, and that while the projected milling capacity for the factory is 1.35 million tons, they hope to grind at least 1.05 million tons over the course of the season with 6,000 tons being milled daily at first, after which the daily quota will gradually increase.

Of note is that the BSCFA owns roughly 66% of the estimated 1.477 million tons of cane that are in the field, 9% is owned by BSI, 18% by the PSPA, and the rest is owned by the other, newly formed groups of growers.



The sugar crop finally commenced this morning after stakeholders closed a rather tumultuous negotiation which lasted well over two years. The crop though starts late, two days later than last year’s crop and at a time when the sugar cane production is even higher than any other year. This then translates into concerns for stakeholders in the industry. Notwithstanding that, today was a day to celebrate for BSI/ASR, government officials and farmers as the sugar impasse is finally over with the factory’s opening day at the Mills for deliveries.