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Apr 25, 2017

Mechanical Harvesting – the Future of the Local Sugar Cane Industry

With a drop in the price of sugar in the global market as well as a shift to beet sugar, the local sugar industry is at a crossroads. To remain competitive, the five thousand plus farmers have to look at how to cut production and harvesting costs to remain competitive.  At American Sugar Refinery/Belize Sugar Industry, pilot testing is taking place to encourage the use of mechanical harvesting which can effectively cut down costs in producing sugar.  News Five Duane Moody was in Orange Walk today where the millers put off a demonstration for the media.

 

William Neal

William Neal, Communications/Gov’t Affairs Officer, ASR/B.S.I.

“This pilot project is indicative of the type of sweeping changes that the industry must make in terms of trying to remain viable and competitive. We are a small country and the world market prices are set by larger countries like Brazil. If you want to compete, you have to see whether it is six dollars here or there, you have to see exactly where you can save.”

 

Duane Moody, Reporting

Regionally, Belize has the healthiest sugar industry in the Caribbean. There are only three other countries—namely Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica – that export sugar to the European Union. But with the current sugar trade conditions, and as the E.U. regime changes, there is need for more efficiency in production and harvesting.

 

Cosme Hernandez

Cosme Hernandez, General Manager, Progressive Sugar Cane Producers Association

“Most of the times when changes occur it’s because situation arise where either you do it or you get out of it. Last year’s price on the sugar definitely was not conducive for me to continue as a cane farmer if I continued paying the amount of price just for harvesting and delivery. The mechanical harvesting cuts my cost almost twenty percent. So if you are presently committed to any financial institution and the price of sugar comes at fifty, fifty-two dollars per ton, then automatically you are out of business in two to three years.”

 

There are over five thousand cane farmers in northern Belize, majority are from the Orange Walk District. As it currently stands, thirty-seven farmers have signed on to a pilot program by the millers to venture into mechanized harvesting, which is the future for the viability of the industry during a most critical time. Field Agronomist, Enrique Rivas has been working closely with the mechanical harvesting pilot project with farmers this year.

 

Enrique Rivas

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

“The benefit is to reduce cost. The industry as a whole is looking forward to reducing costs. What we want to do is maximize our profits and one of the ways is to reduce the cost of harvesting and delivering this cane. So depending on the distance, we are charging farmers a lower rate than if it was being harvested manually because we don’t have the other costs that are incurred into manual cutting and loading.”

 

Most of the cortadores are from neighboring Central American countries. And aside from reducing that cost, the services provided by ASR/B.S.I. through the use of two contracted mechanical harvesters are more eco-friendly since there will be no need to slash and burn the crops. The goal is to get to ninety percent of mechanized harvesting. But what are the requirements that farmers must satisfy.

 

Enrique Rivas

“Once the farmer has created this interest of participating with us, then we go about doing site visits, ensuring that the fields are harvester friendly. That they are free of rocks and stomps because these can be dangerous for the equipment. The field conditions are right that the productivity is above forty to forty-five tons per hectare, which is approximately twenty to twenty-two tons per acre. So those are the strongest factors that we do have for selecting their fields.”

 

So why have farmers been reluctant to move into mechanical harvesting? Is this venture costly to small and medium farmers to buy in, when compared to manual harvesting?

 

Cosme Hernandez

“The farmers that are reluctant to get into the project are farmers that have their own equipment. If you have your own equipment it actual costs you between twenty-one to twenty-two dollars to cut and harvest your cane; that’s excluding payments sometimes to drivers. What happens is some farmers own their equipment, they operate the cane loader, the brother drives the truck so that they continue in business. But the farmer that is solely a producer really has to find ways to cut on the cutting and the delivering of cane.”

 

Ernesto Pop

Ernesto Pop, Farmer Relations Field Officer, ASR/B.S.I.

“Some of the concerns is distance from factory, would it cost more. That’s one of their major concerns. Another one would be like their field conditions; so how we go about improving their field conditions as they join the program.”

 

In terms of small farmers, associations have been looking at a possible contract in which caneros collectively agree to harvest at the same time using the mechanical harvester as a tool to cut costs. Duane Moody for News Five.

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