Sugar industry moving towards mechanized harvesting Print E-mail
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Thursday, 27 April 2017 00:00

The sugar cane industry in Belize is at a crossroads. In October, 6 months from now, Belize and the other African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Countries will no longer get the benefit of preferential status at the world market place for sugar. That means that European beet sugar producers will be able to compete directly with Belizean sugar cane farmers.

These European sugar beet producers are able to produce high quality sugar at a much higher rate of efficiency and lower cost. This makes their product a lot more viable and competitive on the world market, and it also makes the industry from which European Country these beet farmers come from more resilient to whatever dip the global price of sugar takes.

That’s because their farming practices are very modernized, so that their industry’s cost effectiveness allows for better profit margins at any price point. Cane farmers in the north have been doing a lot over the recent years to improve their outputs. They’ve been working on improving cane quality, growing better crops, and reducing costs in different aspects of cultivation. There is even the Sugar Industry Management Information System (SIMIS), which carefully maps out all the cane fields in production.

One technique which is slow to pick up traction among the cane farming community is mechanized harvesting. The experts at the Belize Sugar Industries Limited believe that this is the future of the industry. Currently, most of the cane that is delivered to the mill is hand cut by labourers using machetes. That’s known as manual harvesting, though it is deeply rooted in the traditions of cane farming in the north, it is not very cost effective. BSI has been promoting mechanized harvesting as its replacement, but the farmers still have not bought into the idea as yet.

For the 2016-2017 crop season, BSI has been hosting a mechanical harvesting pilot project and 37 farmers signed up to be a part of it to test out the more efficient way of getting the cane to the factory. In the pilot project, 28,681 thousand tons coming from 250 fields belonging to these farmers will be cleared using mechanical harvesting.

To qualify, each farmer had to express interest to participate in the project, and then careful site inspections were done of each field that was chosen. They had to ensure that their fields were clean of harmful materials such as rocks or tree stumps. This is to make sure that the hydraulic blades of the mechanized harvester aren’t damaged. Also, the fields must be leveled, and the rows of cane must be planted a particular distance apart to ensure that the harvester’s blades can pass over them properly, and cut each cane stalk properly.

Once these conditions were met BSI and the field owners signed contracts to be a part of the program, and at this time, each farmer is averaging $6.38 in savings per ton. Collectively, these farmers will save $205,000, and they stand to make more savings because in manual cutting there is always a small percentage of cane that is lost during the harvesting phase. Mechanical harvesting cuts down on the amount of cane lost, and that is also more money in the pocket of the farmers. It is also beneficial to the mill because the cane is cleaner and goes to grind with less mud and other extraneous matter that increases wear and tear on the grinding equipment.

It is also healthier for the environment because green harvesting cuts the need for slash and burn. Green harvesting also preserves the soil’s nutrients, which makes replanting on the same land easier. Mechanical Harvesting is also very quick to clear a field of cane that needs to be harvested. A harvester can cut 38 tons of cane in an hour, which means whenever there are wildfires (or maliciously set fires) which affects a farmer, that cane can be quickly harvested. The quick procedure allows for the farmer’s investments in his field to be saved before degradation and losses start to affect the product.

Those at BSI believe that changes to agricultural practices like this need to happen to ensure that Belize’s sugar industry survives. The hope is that these 37 farmers will encourage their colleagues within the farming community to adapt, so that sometime soon, it becomes part of the industry’s standard.

Last Updated on Thursday, 27 April 2017 14:40