2 months ago, we told you about the unexpected low prices that the cane farmers would get for their sugar cane during the 2015-2016 Crop Cycle.
That's because the European market prices for sugar are down, and it is beyond the control of the millers, Belize Sugar Industries Limited, and their majority shareholder, American Sugar Refineries Limited.
Well, you the local consumer, are taking a whopping 50 % price increase in sugar to make up some of the shortfall. But, while that increase is this year's fix, the coming years also look dire because in Europe Beet Sugar will be allowed to complete equally with sugar cane.
So, to compete, the cost of production has to go down - and, ideally, that could mean replacing all those machetes with machines. The Sugar Industry Research and Development Institute, better known as SIRDI, invited the press to take a look at the new way to harvest cane, and 7News was in Orange Walk to see it for ourselves. Daniel Ortiz reports:
Daniel Ortiz reporting
Here on the Research fields of SIRDI, just outside of Orange Walk Town, the technicians in the Sugar Industry have been running tests with the large scale operation of mechanized sugar cane harvesting.
Adrian Zetina - Research Coordinator, SIRDI "We are looking at this parcel as sort of a case study where we can then have some hard empirical data."
Olivia Avilez - Cane Farmers Relations, ASR/BSI "The purpose of this really is to share the experiences of BSI in terms of what they do as mechanical harvesting and we want to do this because farmers would want to learn. They are very interested in learning some of the techniques that we have learnt, because it's not an easy process it takes learning. BSI does have mechanical harvesting in its operation."
The rest of the Sugar Cane world outside of Belize has been using this as to reap sugar cane for years, and the experts say that the local cane farmers have to consider this upgrade as the next serious transition for the sake of efficiency and cost-cutting.
Olivia Avilez - Cane Farmers Relations, ASR/BS "It's more efficient, more cost affected and can perform in unburnt cane which cutters don't necessarily want to cut unburnt cane. We call it green harvesting. It can perform in rainy weather conditions depending on the field and it can perform in very hot weather conditions when the production of cane decreases the productivity."
Enrique Rivas - Harvesting Operations, BSI "The machine has the capacity on our BSI experience that we have harvested between 25 to 40 tons an hour. So an acre for BSI would have approximately 30 tons."
Alexis Torres - Co-Owner, Northern Enterprises Co. Ltd. "The base cutter is at the bottom that traps the cane at the base and you have your choppers that will cut it in various bit of sizes whether you want it 4, 5 or 6 on your setting in inches. So as far as that goes you can load straight to a truck or you can load to a wagon like you can see next to the harvester here. We sent people out to Louisiana to train them at John Deere Headquarters to learn how to run the machines, to learn the settings of the base cutters, learn how to use the elevators which delivers to the wagons and so on."
To get this technology out into mainstream use, the technicians will need the small cane farmers to be receptive to the idea. That could be a challenge in itself.
Modesto Ulloa - International Consultant, ASR/BSI "Almost every other sugar producing country has addressed mechanical harvesting for several issues; one, because it's cost effective; two, because they are having problems getting people that want to cut sugarcane."
David Ackerman - 2nd Generation Cane Farmer "It could happen, but it's going to take a while to bring forth change of mind sets. Remember people of Belize tend to stagnate themselves in cultural behaviors. So to me this is one of the biggest challenges."
Alexis Torres - Co-Owner, Northern Enterprises Co. Ltd. "It's still very, something that farmers don't understand quite well yet. They are looking in to it. I have spoken to various farmers, my father and I as well. It's something that is still fresh. We have contract exclusively with BSI who is now ASR."
Then, there is the possibility of the loyalty that the cane farmers may have to their cane cutters. This machine would replace them, which means lost jobs.
The experts assert that these same cutters can be trained in new jobs that will be available if mechanized harvesting is rolled out. That should also be attractive to the cane cutters since they will be specializing in skilled work which raise the value of their labour - from menial to mechanized:
Adrian Zetina - Research Coordinator, SIRDI "We are trying to just give the harvest group leaders options and at the end it's their decision if they are going to take it, because there are some leaders who might have had cutters working for them for 10, 15, 20 years and they have built up this very good relationship with them. Where we are trying to move is to a more efficient system where we could eventually create different skilled higher paying jobs where some of these guys can slot into."
This piece of equipment costs a little more than a quarter million dollars, and right now in the north, Alex Torres and his father own two which are open for contracting. It costs a pretty penny to get them to show up.
Alexis Torres - Co-Owner, Northern Enterprises Co. Ltd. "It cost just to go in the field about sixty thousand just to show up, just to get us to another farm in test group that is what will be necessary to show up."
David Ackerman - 2nd Generation Cane Farmer "For this to work at the cane farmer level, a structure has to be built in blocking. Whereby because looking at one of these machines it's a lot of money and from the little knowledge that I have on these friends that in the United States who are huge cane farmers. If it isn't doing 400-450 tons a day it's not feasible."
And, apart from the cane farmers having to organize themselves into blocks to harvest 450 tonnes per day, they also have to plant their cane a certain way conducive to the machine's optimum use. Each row of cane has to be about 1.65 to 1.8 meters apart for it pass along and cut the cane quickly. Also, the land has to be leveled, and it has to be cleaned of rocks, debris and garbage. A small stump like this for the harvester is like swallowing a fishbone.
Enrique Rivas - Harvesting Operations, BSI "The fields has to be free of stomps. The fields has to be free of rocks, and they have to be free of metals or garbage so that the machine can work properly."
Alexis Torres - Co-Owner, Northern Enterprises Co. Ltd. "It's been a challenge though. I would like to mention that from the beginning of the year, the things that I'm sure that I've mentioned already, large rocks, things that are mentioned as flint stones, humongous barrels like stumps. We have even found tires in the field, in different fields so there is a lot of things that happen and experience over the years has progressed."