Louisiana farmers worried subfreezing temperatures will hurt next year’s sugarcane crop; specialist optimistic

Louisiana farmers are worried that more than 60 hours of subfreezing temperatures will hurt next year’s sugarcane crop, but an LSU AgCenter specialist is optimistic the damage won’t be that bad.

A complete assessment may need weeks, but sugarcane survived a freeze in January 2018 when consecutive nighttime lows hit 14 and 17 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 degrees and -8.3 degrees celsius), Kenneth Gravois said in a news release Friday.

“Every freeze has its own story, so we’re going to uncover that story in the days and weeks to come,” Gravois said.

Rain and snow before the freeze helped, he said: “We did have rainfall and a lot of snowfall before the freeze. That snow is going to act as a temperature buffer.”

AgCenter engineer Randy Price said soil temperatures 2 inches below the surface in Alexandria didn’t reach freezing. Price, who monitors several weather stations around the state, said soil temperatures at the Dean Lee Research and Extension Center near Alexandria fell to 34 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees celsius).

This year’s sugar crop was the largest on record, at nearly 2 million tons. Increased acreage in the north, which is more vulnerable to freezing, and in the west contributed to the 2020 record.

Gravois said this freeze was nowhere near as devastating one in December 1989. Not only was the past week much warmer, but varieties developed during the past 30 years are more cold tolerant, he said.

Gravois also said this was not the worst February freeze for Louisiana’s sugarcane crop.

“The February freeze of 1899 brought 6 inches of snow to New Orleans,” he said. “This was no February of 1899 freeze.”