The Sweet Science of Sugar
Last night, we brought you coverage of the latest cost-saving measures that the sugar cane farmers and the millers are about to roll out for the next crop season.
6 of the 18 reaping groups from Corozal and Orange Walk, representing all 3 cane farming associations, will participate in the first phase of the Pre-Harvest Cane Quality Program. The technicians who work in the sugar industry want to give all farmers a system of telling exactly when to cut their cane, for optimal quality.
Tonight, we have the full story, and Daniel Ortiz reports:
Yesterday in Guinea Grass, the leaders of 6 harvesting groups, representing all 3 cane farmer associations, stepped forward to sign up for the Pre-Harvest Cane Quality Program. For this upcoming harvesting season, these 6 test groups are going to be trained in the science of getting the sweetest sugar from their cane.
Unlike most agricultural products, it is not so easy to determine when sugar cane has reached full maturity, and is ripe enough to be harvested.
Olivia Avilez - Manager, Cane Farmers Relations, ASR/BSI
"Sugar cane is not like mangoes when you see when it get ripe. A mango you can determine, oh, it's ripe, and it's passing the ripeness. Sugar cane is not like that. You basically need to be an expert in growing sugar cane for 20 years to determine when is the right time to harvest that cane."
And that's the premise of this program, using science on sugarcane:
"So, this particular project seeks to use laboratory equipment field equipment to help the farmers and group leaders determine the quality of that cane, in the field, before it's burnt, before it's cut."
For this program, the American chocolate company, Hershey's, has made a 300 thousand US dollar donation to purchase the testing equipment.
Mac McLachlan - VP, International Relations, ASR Group
"So, for us one of the things we can do, and we do is leverage some support from some of our customers. And Hershey's is a big customer of ASR in the US and, as a result of that, they're prepared to put this grant funding back into the industry, here."
Perry Cerminara - Representative, Hershey Company
"Hershey is all about sustainably sourced ingredients. Our customers and our consumers care about these things. We care about these things. We've got a long history in our company of doing well by doing good, and this is one of the ways that we can do that. We purchase thousands of tonnes from BSI, every year, and that increased by about 20% last year."
It's already been tried with 2 test groups, and they saw measurable improvements to the quality of their cane when compared to previous years.
"We have trialed 2 test groups already, last year, and both of the test groups saw an improvement in their quality."
"Last year, the pilot project with the 2 test groups was a huge success. They found that their overall quality improved tremendously, just simply as a result of testing in the field, and using a harvesting plan with the results of that equipment."
One of those test groups was so impressed with the results that it signed up again this year. Cane farmers Everaldo Uk says that it's not as complicated as it may seem.
Everaldo Uk - Cane Farmer, CSCPA
"My test group, C6, on our last crop, we were part of the pilot program, being carried [out] through BSI. Under the group qualities, we went down up to number 13, and we ended up, this crop in one of the first numbers in quality. We can be guided now as to which field we harvest first, and continue harvested. As I have mentioned before, it is not hard work. It is simply dedication. With the new methods that we have, the modern technology now, the NIR, I believe that our farmers, we must get acquainted with the program. Let's not look at it as a threat."
That willingness to adapt and abandon traditional, but less efficient farming practices, is motivated by drastic change in the EU market, and declining world market prices for sugar. Right now it's about survival - and to do that, they must remain competitive.
"We can't control the global market. We can control our cost of producing cane, and our cost of delivering cane to the factory."
And industry leaders are hoping that this tried and tested method will be embraced by all farmers.
"I have no doubt that when benefits are demonstrated and proven, that I would imagine that the majority of would want to join in with that process. The beauty of this project is it's directly helping cane farmers."
"Since we made our initial investment 2 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. This is truly a great example of a win-win partnership, where farmers have increased their incomes, environmental impacts were reduced, and ASR were able to source more sugar that was grown using best practices."
At the end of the program, the objective is to create a national Harvesting plan. In 3 years, the Sugar Cane Production Committee wants to make sure that the entire crop will be harvested to produce the maximum amount sugar that is possible.
Yesterday, the SCPC chairman explained how it will work:
Dr. Carlos Itza - Chairman, SCPC
"Since in the whole industry, we have 18 test groups, we plan to do 6 test groups this year, 6 next year, and then, the following year, it will be six more, completing an entire cycle of the 18 test groups that we need to develop a harvest plan, and then, we will do an industry harvest plan. Why this is significant is because without a proper plan in place, we will not be able to produce more sugar per the amount of cane that we harvest."
Of course, we would be remiss if we didn't mention that this program named "sweet sampling for sweet returns" relies on the same technology that the BSI, under former ownership and management tried to implement at the factory in 2009, which resulted in fiery protests and one cane farmer's life being lost. This new approach is far more measured, localised and incremental - and it happens in the field, not at the factory.