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“Sweet sampling for sweet returns” in cane land

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Apr. 26, 2018– In ordinary times the sugarcane industry has its ups and downs, its boom and busts. At different times King Sugar has been challenged by world prices, and pests, and productivity. Belize does not dictate world prices, and in the best of managements, pests will become a problem in a monoculture.

For decades the Ministry of Agriculture, BSI (Belize Sugar Industries), and the Cane Farmers Association(s), have been working to help farmers to improve their crop management, with the primary objective of increasing the productivity of Belize’s cane fields. There are presently some 60,000 or so acres of sugarcane in the Corozal and Orange Walk districts, and Belize has known for a long time that the biggest challenge yet to our 5,000 sugarcane farmers was ahead — that being open market competition with European farmers and their beet sugar.

For a long time the African/Caribbean/Pacific (ACP) countries have enjoyed some protection for their sugar and bananas when they traded in Europe. But to comply with international trade agreements, especially with the USA, European countries have had to remove tariffs that gave the ACPs a slight advantage.

The European Union introduced the Fairtrade program to help us prepare for the liberalized global market. Fairtrade calls for farmers to be sensitive to the environment, to respect workers, and to send their children to school, instead of having them labor in the fields. In return, the organization’s website says, it works to “deliver greater impact for producers, and engage even more of the UK public in shopping and campaigning for a better deal for farmers and workers in developing countries.”

The BSCFA got certification from Fairtrade in 2008, and this program, with its preferential prices, helped our cane farmers with needed funds to strengthen their capacity so they would be better able to face the challenge of lower prices for our products in Europe.

Those days of lower prices are here now, and they are as gloomy as the worst predictions. Sugar prices are in a free fall, and only the best producers will survive.

7News’ Daniel Ortiz reported on that station’s April 25 newscast, about a recent visit to the sugar belt. The first part of his story presented the bad news. BSI’s Cane Farmer Relations Officer, Olivia Avilez, told 7News: “…last year we were enjoying prices of 21 cents a pound in terms of global sugar prices. We get an average of the full crops’ prices as they fluctuate. Last year we were looking at 21 cents a pound. This year when we started this crop we were looking at around 14 cents a pound and it has been coming down. If you google into the sugar organization website, you will see that sugar prices are down to 11 cents. That has a major impact on production, capacities, production costs and returns.”

A Reuters report on CNBC said that global oversupply had pressured prices in sugar contracts to their “weakest levels in more than nine years.”

“Sugar prices will only start to recover towards 2020 as a global glut of stocks will continue to weigh, the chief executive of the world’s largest sugar trader Alvean said on Tuesday. Rising production in India, Thailand and the European Union has led to an oversupply of sugar in the world market,” Reuters further reported.  One foreign expert said that a “sub 11 cents price has been on the cards for a while and we are fast approaching that level.”

In these difficult times, these stiff winds, the sugarcane industry is in overdrive to improve, and one of its initiatives is its program to improve harvesting practices. 7News said they were told by the organizers of the program, which started six months ago, that it is about maximizing “the quality of the cane being delivered to the mill by ensuring that the crop is at its peak maturity and purity” when it is harvested. The program is called “Sweet Sampling for Sweet Returns”, and it is being “led by BSI/ASR, and the Sugar Cane Production Committee, with funding from the American chocolate company, Hershey, through its “Learn to Grow Program.”

Farmers who are in the pilot program have their fields tested, and the crop is color-coded so that the reapers know which fields to cut. If the field has a red tag, the reapers know that it is not ready; a yellow tag means that it will be ready in two weeks; and a green tag means that the cane cutters, or mechanical harvester, can get to work.

BSI Cane Relations Officer, Regel Cal, told 7News that the “cane sampling program is tied to another initiative between BSI and the Sugar Cane Production Committee” —  that being “the extensive mapping of all the cane fields in the north under the Sugar Industry Management Information System, SIMIS.”  The SIMIS allows “field officers to be able to choose 5 to 10-acre plots on the cane fields to test. It is carefully monitored with GPS equipment.”

Adrian Zetina, the Research & Development Chief at BSI, told 7News that they test the brix, “which is the total dissolved solids” in the juice of the cane. Zetina said that sugar “is the majority component of the brix”, but “it also includes salts, proteins and any other of these solids that we have in the juice. POL is exclusively the sucrose that is in the juice. So using these 2 parameters you have POL and you divide by brix and that will give us the purity. As a standard, the industry will accept 81% purity. The cane needs to be at 81%. If it falls below that then it cannot be accepted at the mill.”

It is all about the optimum moment to harvest the cane and take it to the mill. The ripeness, maturity of sugarcane cannot be determined accurately by experience, so farmers will not need much convincing to join the program. That’s exactly what Jose Luis Cowo, a cañero, told 7News: “Depending on the length of the month, regularly about 12 months, we thought it was at a good maturity. But now using the test we could determine much better accuracy,” he said.  Harvesting at the optimum time means more sucrose content, which means more money in the pockets of our hardworking farmers.

The Sweet Sampling for Sweet Returns program is but one of the initiatives of the industry to improve the industry during these tough times. 7News’  Ortiz reported that BSI/ASR is at this time considering an investment of 22 million dollars for the purpose of producing “direct consumption sugars”, which fetch up to “42% more than raw sugar.”

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