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Feb 5, 2016

Will Cane Cutters Be Replaced by Mechanical Harvesting?

In the months of the sugar crop, thousands of laborers are employed in fields to plant and cut cane.  The practice is as old as the history of the local sugar cane industry. But things are moving ahead and with new technology, cane cutters will someday, in the not too distant future, no longer be needed in the cane fields. Today at a cane field on the Guinea Grass Road, Orange Walk, the Agriculture Department of ASR carried out a Mechanical Harvesting Pilot Activity along with Sugar Industry Research and Development Institute to show how mechanized harvesting is a more efficient way to cut cane. News Five’s Duane Moody reports.

 

Duane Moody, Reporting

Agriculture in Belize is defined by several sectors: sugar, banana, citrus, marine products and cattle; agriculture is one the largest contributors to the gross national income. The sugar industry, in particular, provides close to fourteen percent of the local GDP. But the industry is under pressure by international markets and so stakeholders must collectively look at options available to cut costs while increasing efficiency.

 

Adrian Zetina

Adrian Zetina, Research Coordinator, SIRDI

“We are giving farmers an option and we are showing them and illustrating to them what this option entails. We had this field planted and it is suitable enough and I say suitable enough because there were some critical factors that were left out—it is not fully mechanized. And so we wanted to show farmers that we can harvest in these types of conditions and it is something that these harvest group leaders can take into account in the future.”

 

Back in 2015, at the signing of a sugar cane purchasing agreement between cane farmers and American Sugar Refinery, stakeholders agreed to the development of a long-term sugar industry strategic plan. B.S.I. in collaboration with the Sugar Industry Research and Development Institute today organized a mechanical harvesting pilot demonstration for stakeholders.

 

Olivia Avilez

Olivia Avilez, Cane Farmers Relations, B.S.I./ASR

“The purpose of this really is to share the experiences of B.S.I. in terms of what they do as mechanical harvesting. We want to do this because farmers are very interested in learning some of the techniques that we have learnt.”

 

Mechanical harvesting is used by B.S.I. in thirty percent of its operation. While it was introduced to the industry in 2006, there are now two of the machines in the country. Valued at one hundred and fifty thousand U.S. dollars each, the service is provided exclusively by Northern Enterprises Company Limited.

 

Alexis Torres

Alexis Torres, Co-owner, Northern Enterprises Co. Ltd.

“There’s many mechanism; there is the base cutters at the bottom that chops the cane at the base and you have the choppers that will cut t in various sizes—whether you want four or five or six in inches at your setting. As far as that goes, you can load straight to a truck or a high wagon like you see next to the harvester here.”

 

But there are some field requirements that are important for the harvesters to be easily introduced into the system. Those include the tonnage of cane per acre as well as the size of the fields.  And then there is the sixty thousand dollars that must be paid to the contractors for the use of machines.

 

Alexis Torres

“Field beds should be prepared in a manner that the rows are at least one point eight apart. So rows that are less than that, you may have some challenges if you are running in the field with tractors like the high-tip wagons or trucks. You want to make sure that your slopes are even so your beds are not curving left or right or going up or down. To keep the machine consistent, for the base cutter to do its proper job, you would need it to be level. Free of rocks, free of stomps, etc.”

 

David Akierman

David Akierman, Cane Farmer, Corozal Sugar Producers Association

“The way the sugar industry is designed in Belize, there are five thousand cane farmers and they are all sizes. There has to be major reform and restructuring for this to work at the cane farmer level. Then a structure has to be built in blocking. If it isn’t doing four hundred four hundred and fifty tons a day, it isn’t feasible. Now this is one of the major challenges that the industry will face; that we will have to do blocking. So if I would buy a machine, my neighbor and my next neighbor, we would have to organize harvesting.”

 

Recently, the industry announced that preferential prices for sugar by the European Union would be cut and this crop season, they will receive a first payment of approximately thirty-five dollars, almost half of what had been previously paid. In light of the upcoming price cuts, the mechanized harvesting provides farmers with the option to lower production cost in order to become more competitive.

 

Enrique Rivas

Enrique Rivas, Harvesting Operations, B.S.I./ASR

“The benefits of mechanical harvesting are that you have the capability of cutting cane whenever you are set back from what is manual cutting. For example for a day like this, if you are not able to burn cane for the cutters, then on the following day, for the cutters, you won’t have any availability of cane. This is where mechanical harvesting comes into play; because then I can turn to the machines and say let’s go guys and we can cut—depending on the conditions—between three hundred to four hundred tons on a day. That is one of the benefits—you can easily come in. you can to green cane harvesting, you can do burn cane harvesting and you can deliver cane to the mill very quickly. If you see some of the high-tip wagons, the cane that is coming out is very clean because the system—the hydraulic and extraction system that the mechanical harvester has—makes it possible for us to attain these.”

 

Traditionally, the preparation to get sugar cane from the field to the mill is a tedious and time-consuming one. Cortadores—the cutters—work around the clock, enduring seven-day work weeks during the six-month long cane season. So does technology replace the laborers?

 

Adrian Zetina

“There are some leaders who have had cutters working with them for ten, fifteen, twenty years and they’ve developed a good relationship with them. Where we are trying to move is to a more efficient system where we could eventually create different skilled higher paying jobs where some of these guys can slot into.”

 

David Akierman

“If we don’t find where we could cut ends and find money, you would have possible people falling out.”

 

Duane Moody

“Sir so does that mean that essentially as a cane farmer you are willing to give up your cortadores?”

 

David Akierman

“Let’s be realistic; business is not sentiments. You either survive or you drown. You either have money to pay your financier or you don’t; the will sell you out.”

 

Olivia Avilez

“It’s not to replace cane cutters. It is really to compliment their work and also to use the mechanical harvesters when we don’t have enough workers, cane cutters, because the numbers are diminishing; lots of people don’t want to cut cane.”

 

Duane Moody for News Five.

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