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Sour days for sugar production
published: Tuesday | December 31, 2002

By Marjorie Stair, Western Bureau Chief


A trench is dug in the middle of a canefield to aid in water run-off. - Contributed

THE INADEQUATE supply of raw material i.e. available sugar cane for processing remains the single most important factor affecting the sugar industry yet little is being said about it. This and, therefore, the need for intensive and extensive replanting of sugar cane fields, was the consensus of all sugar industry stakeholders interviewed in 2002 April, at the peak of the 2001 to 2002 sugar cane crop.

At the start of the 2002 to 2003 crop, if anything has changed, it is that the situation has worsened. The problem has been compounded by earlier flood rains, which affected the last crop, preventing some fields from being harvested, causing harvesting delays, thereby, replanting activities, and is still preventing access to some sugar cane fields that are to be harvested in the present crop and has caused the abandonment of other fields.

The private sector controlled estates and factories viz. Appleton estate and sugar factory and New Yarmouth estate, both operated by the J. Wray and Nephew group of companies, and the Worthy Park estate, owned and operated by the Clarke and McConnell families, have invested millions of dollars in upgrading both field and factory technology resulting in the existence of not only two modern sugar factories but also significant gains in sugar cane yields and juice quality measured by the sugar cane to sugar conversion TC/TS ratio.

Sugar cane production technology, which includes the planting of higher yielding varieties, the use of the centre pivot irrigation technique on some estates, improving methods of preparing cane rows and doubling cane population, is expected to produce cane yields of approximately 120 tonnes cane per hectare, a significant increase on current yields of between 85 and 90 tonnes cane per hectare.

APPLETON ESTATE

The Appleton factory gets approximately 25 per cent of its cane supplies from cane farmers outside of its estate, as it also processes cane from its New Yarmouth estate. The Worthy Park factory is more dependent on canes produced by farmers outside of its estate getting approximately 70,000 to 80,000 tonnes of canes, or just about 50 per cent of its supplies from cane farmers. Supplies of the larger farms have improved and are expected to remain at approximately the same levels as the last crop but small farmer cane supplies to the factory have dwindled steadily over the past five years.

The sugar crop at Appleton estate, which starts on New Year's day is expected to last 16 weeks, ending on 2003 April 20. The targets for the 2003 crop are:

290,000 tonnes cane;

25,000 tonnes sugar.

This estate hopes that its heavy investment at both factory and field levels will result in sugar production levels of 60,000 tonnes of sugar by the 2005 crop. The TC/TS conversion ratio for the 2003 crop is expected to be just over 11 as the estate expects to harvest some relatively young canes, the result of floods earlier in the year. The floods prevented the harvesting of canes for a part of the month of May and all of June, resulting in the harvesting season being extended to July 2002, hence the problem of young canes. The milling of the young canes is to allow the factory to get back on cycle in the anticipation that they will have a perfect crop and significantly improved conversion ratio in 2004.

The New Yarmouth sister estate is expected to show significant improvement this crop as this estate was not adversely affected by flooding and the use of the centre pivot irrigation system has resulted in significant increases in sugar cane yields. They are expected to harvest 110,000 tonnes of sugar cane as compared to 90,000 tonnes in the last crop.

Worthy Park estate is expected to harvest an additional 14,000 tonnes of sugar canes this year, moving sugar cane production on the estate from 78,000 tonnes to 92,000 tonnes. This, despite the loss of approximately 40 hectares of sugar cane to flooding. The estate projects sugar production of approximately 23,000 tonnes, the same as last year as they expect a lower sugar conversion ratio and reduced supplies of sugar canes from small farmers. The TC/TS ratio for the last crop was 8.45 but is expected to end up at just about 9.00 because of the rains and flooding of a number of fields.

These two entities, Worthy Park and Appleton estates represent approximately 35 per cent of the sugar industry, however, with the remainder of the sugar industry being controlled by the public sector via the Sugar Company of Jamaica, SCJ and SCJ Holdings Ltd. which, earlier this year took over the operations of the Trelawny Sugar Company Ltd. and the operations of the Hampden and Long Pond sugar estates, both located in the parish of Trelawny.

Sugar cane farmers in the Mid-Clarendon Development Co-operative supply sugar to the Monymusk factory, controlled and operated by the SCJ. It is outside of the estates that the problem of sugar cane supplies becomes critical. The Mid-Clarendon Development Co-operative, which produced an average of 65,318 tons of sugar cane between 1986 and 1981, peaking at 72,109 tonnes in the 1989/90 crop produced 27,000 tonnes in the last crop and is expected to do just about 20,000 tonnes in the 2003 crop.

POOR CONDITION

The Co-op still has 1,240 members on roll but 989 are cane farmers that have moved out of production leaving 252 active sugar cane farmers. Sugar cane lands in production have moved from 3,000 acres to between 400 to 500 acres. A tour of the area reveals a picture of occasional cases of well cultivated sugar canes in a desert of abandoned cane lands, covered with grass or canes in such poor condition that they appear to be little more than taller grass with thick stalks, oftentimes choked by weeds with huge sections of the fields missing. Some farmers are still expected to harvest these canes, however.

The irony of the Mid-Clarendon development area, however, is that these abandoned or poorly developed sugar cane lands have access to heavily subsidised irrigation water. The area is served by the National Irrigation Commission's, Mid-Clarendon authority and the cost of the water is subsidised 62 per cent by the Jamaican taxpayer despite of what must be significantly reduced demand for this water.

The flood rains have, also adversely affected members of the co-op, producing canes in the St Jago area of the parish, earlier this year. Some fields have been under water for more than seven months and several hundreds were not harvested in the last crop because of the floods. The final destination of the waters that arose, almost miraculously in Porus, is the St. Jago plains, and Monymusk estate, which has canes in the area, has had to dredge the river to take the water off the land. This exercise has destroyed a bridge, however, preventing access to some small farmers cane. These cane farmers, unable to harvest during the last crop because of the flooding, are now hoping that the National Works Agency and/or Mony-musk estate will restore the bridge so that they can harvest this year's cane crop.

The public sector owned and operated SCJ, which, through its holding company controls approximately 65 per cent of the sugar industry, reports an intense sugar cane planting programme, which started last year with the primary aim of addressing the problem of sugar cane supplies. Aston Smith, Vice President for Finance, reports that the floods also affected its target of planting 3,000 hectares on all the estates. SCJ lost 200 hectares in the St. Jago area, referred to earlier, and 70 hectares at Frome as a result of flooding. Recovery work with sugar cane farmers that was expected to yield 15,000 tonnes of canes is now expected to yield approximately 6000 tonnes because of the flood rains in Westmoreland.

The current crop at the Frome sugar estate started on 2002 December 7, is expected to end in 2002 May and is expected to mill 683,000 tonnes of sugar canes. The TC/TS ratio for the last crop was 14.05, is currently 13.5 and is expected to be approximately 11.5 for the current crop. Cane farmers supply approximately 52 per cent of the canes to the Frome sugar factory as with approximately 4,400 hectares of 5,000 hectares of estate lands cultivated in sugar cane there is little room for expansion of estate cultivation in the Frome area. After two weeks of harvesting, the estate was experiencing cane yields 7 per cent greater than forecasted.

Frome, which is projecting sugar production of 80,000 tonnes sugar by 2007 is expected to produce 59,250 tonnes of sugar this crop. This will be just about its 2000 production level and some 5,305 tonnes less than it produced in 1992. Projections for the other SCJ controlled estates are as follows:

DEADLY COMBINATION

The reasons given for the significant decline in sugar cane production in Jamaica are many and varied. The sugar cane price, which is the subject of international negotiations, is given most frequently as being the major contributory factor. The deadly combination of an inadequate price, heavy indebtedness and low yields result in the statement at the beginning of the article. Many cane farmers end up with virtually no money at the end of the crop, but, given the state of many of their fields, there is little wonder as sugar cane productivity levels, outside of the estates and some of the better managed farms, must be at their lowest ever. One farmer sums up the situation as follows: Many farmers are unwilling to risk capital because of low returns. Of course, lack of capital investment compounds the problem as this in itself ensures low returns.

If the current trend continues with the significant improvements in yield and the use of improved and modern technology on both public and private sector estates and a few large farms, then sugar cane production will return to the plantation with cane lands, those still cultivated by small farmers, going into ruinate or being converted to other economic uses such as providing lands for housing developments.

Can Jamaica survive any changes to the existing European sugar protocol? Not without significant investment in sugar cane production. The question is who is to make this investment? The overburdened Jamaican taxpayer who has already invested very heavily, and more than its fair share in a sugar industry unable to meet domestic demand; the risk averse Jamaican private sector who is unwilling to risk capital without substantial government guarantees; or foreign investors with the capital, expertise and technology that can reverse the fortunes of the sugar industry. The fact is that Jamaica still has some of the best lands for sugar cane production, the Queen of Spain Valley, surrounding the recently closed Hampden Sugar Factory being one such area, and should be able to satisfy our export markets for sugar as well as domestic demand for the commodity. The future of the Jamaican sugar industry must be rooted in an adequate supply of sugar canes.

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