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Working for sweeter cane in 2018 Print E-mail
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Thursday, 16 November 2017 00:00

The sugar cane farmers, the millers, Belize Sugar Industries Limited (BSI), and the Government authorities which manage the sugar industry have launched another program to make Belizean sugar cane more competitive. They’re trying to reduce the cost of production, since Belize’s sugar is about to face tough hardships as it tries to remain relevant among the other sugar producing nations on the world market.

This latest cost-saving initiative is called the Pre-Harvest Cane Quality Program, and the idea is to teach farmers about the best time to cut their cane and transport it to the mill. The program which is themed, “Sweet Sampling for Sweet Returns”, was launched on Richmond Hill, at the Guinea Grass Farms, which is located in the Orange Walk District.

There, representatives from BSI’s majority shareholder, American Sugar Refineries (ASR) congregated with farmers from the 3 farming associations, the Corozal Sugar Cane Producers Association (CSCPA), The Progressive Sugar Cane Producers Association (PSCPA), and the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA). 2 test groups from each of the cane farming associations have signed up for the program, in which they will learn to use scientific equipment to determine when to cut their cane.

At the launch, Olivia Avilez, the Manager of Cane Farmer Relations at ASR/BSI, told the press, “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. 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.”

So, the 6 test groups that have signed up, will go through an apprenticeship with a technical team, made up of experts who have been perfecting this method of testing. The farmers, the millers and the government authorities responsible for sugar are partnering with the Hershey Company. Readers may know that this American chocolate producing company is one of the largest in the world. They have invested in the local industry in the past, and they have renewed that commitment by providing a grant of $300,000 US, to cover the cost of purchasing the scientific equipment to test the maturity of the cane.

Perry Cerminara, the Director of Commodity Sourcing for Hershey’s, flew into Belize specifically to attend this launch. Explaining his company’s interests in Belizean sugar, he told the press that it’s part of their Learn to Grow program. Hershey’s is also involved in another farming best-practices initiative for cane farmers from the north.

Cerminara told the press, 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. When we can partner with a company, like ASR, whom we have a long history with, who does things with the highest integrity, it’s exciting for us to be able to do projects like this.”

The viability of this project has already been tested with 2 harvesting groups from within the cane farming community. During the 2016-2017 Harvest season, these 2 cane farming groups employed the testing techniques from this program, and they had major success with it.

At the ceremonial launch, Everaldo Uk, a cane farmer from CSCPA, gave a testimonial about its effectiveness, and the results that he and his fellow cane farmers enjoyed.

Uk told the gathering, “Under the group qualities, we went down to number 13, and we ended up in this crop as one of the first numbers in quality… 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. Lets not look at it as a threat.”

He’s recommending the full buy-in from all the farmers to embrace modernized agricultural practices like this so that the Belize industry can weather the changes to the World Market Prices.

Mac McLachlan, the Vice President of International Relations for ASR, said, “We can’t control the global market. We can control our cost of producing cane, and our cost of delivering cane to the factory.”

The program will last for 3 harvesting seasons. There are 18 test groups, and so a second cohort of 6 will be taken on for the next harvest season. They will be trained, and they will get a chance to examine for themselves how their cane quality will improve. That will lead to a bigger payment for better cane. In the final year of the program, the remaining 6 test groups will be trained, in the same manner.

McLachlan asserted, “The beauty of this project is it’s directly helping cane farmers.”

After the third year of the pre-harvest program, the Sugar Cane Production Committee intends to put together a national harvesting plan, which will determine which fields will be harvested first. Readers may be aware that the current system of delivering cane to the mill is based on an equitable determination of whose turn it is to make their deliveries. That does not always allow for cane at the ideal maturity to be delivered. This harvesting plan will take into account which cane fields are mature, and those will be delivered first to ensure the highest quality cane. That way the entire industry produces the most amount of sugar possible out of every crop.

It is the second modern farming practice that ASR and... the farmers are exploring. At this time, they are also trying out the effectiveness of mechanized harvesting of sugar cane.

All who depend on the local sugar industry are aware that the preferential market access that Belize and other American Caribbean and Pacific Group of Countries enjoyed has been phased out. Since October 1, 2017, the market for sugar in the European Union has been reconfigured so that European Beet Sugar farmers can compete on the same level playing field with sugar cane farmers. Also, the global price of raw sugar at this time is around $14.50 US per pound. That’s already $10 US less per pound than last year around this time. No one knows what the final price for sugar will be when the season starts.

Realizing that Belize cannot afford any kind of division, that’s probably why the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association and ASR/BSI settled their commercial dispute. They worked out a compromise at the beginning of October so that a commercial agreement could be reached before the start of this upcoming harvesting season. The resolution of that fight was handled rather silently.