Bobby Morris heads out early on hot and humid Louisiana summer mornings to inspect his sugarcane fields. You can hear the cane growing, he says, more than an inch per day as its sword-shaped leaves rise toward 14 feet.
Morris Farms Partnership tends 3,200 acres of sugarcane in soils from heavy clays to sand, much of it within a baseball throw of Port Allen, one of Louisiana’s huge Mississippi River levees. Sugarcane is this state’s No. 1 crop and has been tended for more than 200 years. It grows today on 400,000 acres in 22 parishes and spins off $2 billion a year to cane growers and raw sugar factories.
ONE FARM, ONE CROP
If there is cushion gained from harvesting multiple crops, Morris Farms thrives or dies on decisions made about managing this single crop.
Morris’s farm’s acreage has doubled twice. “Each time we acquired more acreage, drainage, grass pressure and yields were all well below our standards,” he says. “With sugarcane being a ratoon crop, these key problems took years to rectify. But, I can say our yields have steadily increased on the new land.”
Cane was first produced on Morris Farms in the mid-80s, and Morris, a fourth-generation farmer, took over the farm from his parents six years ago. It takes a certain flow to produce sugarcane, Morris says. “You have to have a pretty sharp mind to keep everything flowing. It’s all about the flow.” One step leads to the next. An entire year’s planning focuses on moving 7-inch lengths of cut sugarcane to the mill at Alma Plantation, in Lakeland, Louisiana.
Planting for next year’s crop begins about the first week of August (the crop planted this coming August won’t be harvested until 2020). Morris’s cane fields are planted by hand, whole stalks laid into furrows opened in laser-leveled fields. One crew plants up to 7 acres per day. Morris runs seven crews.
Sugarcane seed is sourced from other fields on Morris Farms. One acre of cane seed plants 7 acres of cane. New plantings will be harvested every year for three to four years. “Once it is planted, you are married to it,” Morris says. An acre costs $1,200 to $1,500 to plant. “You are pretty much putting all your eggs into one basket.”
Harvest begins in late September. Once that starting gate opens, harvest moves forward every day until early January. “Mud, rain, snow, sleet: We don’t stop harvesting,” Morris says. His quota with Alma Plantation last year was 80,000 tons. He delivered 35 to 40 semiloads per day, 25 tons per load.
Morris always hunts for better ways to manage sugarcane and meet his income projections. He participates in the American Sugar Cane League Secondary Station Program. This gives Morris Farms early access to new varieties of sugarcane.
“Yes, it means that we take a bigger risk with some of our acres, but the rewards outweigh the risks,” he says. “Typically, the new, experimental varieties we grow on our farm produce higher yields and perform better than varieties available to other farmers.” Morris Farms is a high-yielding sugarcane producer.
Morris pays close attention to the efficiency of his equipment line. “To improve our time management and efficiency, we have learned it is imperative to have up-to-date and reliable equipment,” he says. He plans to replace his equipment every four to five years.
The farm has added GPS mapping and laser grading. “Implementing GPS mapping gives us the means to efficiently and accurately apply chemicals, and allows us to be more accurate when we report acreage to the sugar mills,” he says.
The laser grading created larger, farmable blocks. Larger blocks offer improved drainage and reduced costs, and result in better weed management. Fewer ditches mean fewer grass-infested ditches. Weed control in a cane field is labor intensive.
“Sugarcane is not a Roundup Ready crop,” Morris says. “We have found that eliminating the enemies of sugarcane, johnson- and bermudagrasses, involves spraying Roundup with the use of backpack sprayers and cotton gloves soaked in Roundup.”
It’s a practice that has worked. “We no longer need to blanket-spray our crop. This, in turn, has saved us on chemical, labor and fuel costs,” he says.
“My adrenaline gets pumping when I look across the fields and see the tractors moving and the dirt turning,” Morris says. “It’s that passion that gets me going in the morning, working through the day and awake at night. We only have 100 days to get our crop out of the fields during sugarcane-grinding season. There is no storing the crop in the field. When it’s time to harvest, it’s go time, and I love every minute of it.”
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