A few months ago we told you about the drought that has hit the north. It has affected several different crops, and one of the hardest hit, is the sugarcane. Because of its value to the country’s economy and livelihoods of thousands of Belizeans, a lot of steps are being taken to build the resiliency of this industry. But as we head into what should have been the start of the new crop year for sugar – farmers received distressing news – that the sugar crop will start at least a month late. That’s because the drought has taken a toll on the crops. Today, we headed north to find out just how much impact the drought has caused and what are sugar officials doing to build the resiliency of the sugar industry. Here’s the story.
Amelio Chi, Production Agronomist, BSIL
“This is a field that typically would have a lot of population but because of the drought we don’t have a lot of population; and then the length and the shortness of the internodes is a physical indication of the drought effect on the sugar cane.”
“So, you would still harvest this one but you wouldn’t get as much?”
“We wouldn’t get as much as we would expect in a normal year with normal rainfall conditions. In a normal space you would have around ten to eleven mill-able stalks but if you can count there are a lot of dry ones that have already been lost; this one has been already and this one as well. So, from the ten to eleven mill-able stalks that we would take to the factory, it is only one or two or three of them that are good for harvest.”
This field was planted in November of last year – and should be harvested right about now. But these brown, dry and stunted cane stalks didn’t grow as expected so they don’t have any sugar content, and will have to be left behind in these fields. It’s worrying for the sugar cane industry that’s because these cane fields were ravaged by the drought in recent months. The extended dry period hit the north hardest – with the sugar taking a beating in the agriculture sector; it’s a record year for drought experienced in the sugar industry – one that hasn’t been seen in over thirty years. That drought has caused a delay to the start of the sugar cane crop which will impact sugar production.
Olivia Carballo Avilez, Cane Farmers Relations Manager, BSIL
“It was projected at around one point three million tonnes of cane for this crop season, however due to the severe drought impacts mainly in the Corozal area, the drop has been about twenty-seven to thirty percent throughout the industry. That leaves us to about one million tonnes of cane. Looking at the effects of the drought on the fields, we decided as stakeholders that we are unable to start as a crop as we usually start. Also, we have already a drop in the numbers of the cane price. The cane production amount is a factor within the cane price and so is quality so it will definitely have an impact on the cane price. Sincerely this is the most affected in the year we’ve seen this kind of drought impact. According to records, it has been over thirty-five years since we have had this type of weather condition.”
The delayed start of the sugar crop is tentatively set for mid-January – that’s a month late. It is bad news for cane farmers and Alfredo Ortega, Chairman of the Orange Walk BSCFA says about ninety-percent of the sugar cane farmers experienced losses as a result of the drought.
Alfredo Ortega, O.W Branch Chairman, BSCFA
“There are some farmers that have a total loss. There are some farmers that really depending on the land that they have their cane; there are low lands that have a lot of sand and the cane was dry and there were also high lands and the canes were also dry. And there are some farmers that have a partial loss of their cane. The situation is very hard at this point. It is a very huge loss for all us; for the industry. But most all the situation that this drought has caused us to be where we are is really hurting us; it’s really hurtful.”
Ortega says that they were depending on the rain because farmers don’t have irrigation systems – it is something he says that they can’t afford. Ortega is a sugarcane farmer himself. He has about fifty acres of land under sugar cane cultivation. He says that fifteen acres of his sugar cane were directly impacted by the drought – these were cut down and never made it to the mill.
“In regards to tonne, it will be about two hundred and fifty tons that I am losing because of the drought in that area. If we speak about the price, the estimate that they have presented to us of forty-nine dollars and fifty one cents, the first estimate for this coming crop, we are talking about a loss of ten thousand dollars. In my experience being a cane farmer for the past thirty years, this is one of the worse years in regards to the drought that has put is into this situation. Last year, we had some drought but the damage was not as huge as this time.”
Because fifteen percent of the population depends on the sugar industry which earns millions of dollars every year in export earnings for Belize, sugar officials are pushed to build the adaptive capacities of farmers – that is that the sugar industry can adapt to climate change. For years now they have been researching more climate resilient varieties of sugar cane. It is necessary and timely because about sixty percent of Belize’s sugar industry is reliant on just one variety called the B-79. It is risky for any commodity industry to rely on one commodity – as can be seen in this drought. They have some trial plots ninety-six varieties in the fields – at least twenty-five of the new varieties seem to be performing well under the drought conditions.
Adrian Zetina, Research and Development Chief, BSIL
“There are some that have done extremely well under these conditions with little rainfall. That means that they have had a normal growth pattern. They have given us some high productivity in comparison with the B-79. The growth in the internodes is normal; the cane stalk length is normal; these varieties have a wide root network and so these varieties can take advantage of the deeper soil moisture.”
But those varieties have several years more to go before sugar researchers can find suitable climate tolerant varieties – for dry and rainy weather, as well as for pests. So they have been testing out irrigation systems on different plots to see if watering these sugar canes during the dry season can make a difference in the sugar cane growth.
“We have gotten good production and the quality is the same or similar to a drought but one of the challenges we have seen is the availability and quality of water in the north of the country. You can see the difference in growth – the smaller internodes actually tell you that there was a stress on the sugar cane as compared to a healthy one which we had water available during its growing period. So, this is one of the techniques or technologies that we are trying to include on our farms to mitigate the effect of the drought.”