The Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Inc. recently fired up the only sugar mill in the state of Texas, and has begun their 41st consecutive year of harvesting sugar cane grown by the Valley’s 123 sugar cane farmers.
Texas is one of four states in the United States where sugar cane is grown, and it is all grown within 50 miles of Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers’ mill just west of Santa Rosa. Other sugar cane producing states are Louisiana, Florida and Hawaii.
The mill began running on Oct. 24 this year with some “typical” start-up problems and the mill’s 478 employees are now harvesting their way through the patchwork of Valley sugar cane fields that stretch from as far south as Olmito, about as far north as Raymondville, and as far west as just past the Starr County line.
Once the sugar cane has been milled, the raw sugar is shipped from the Port of Harlingen in covered barges across the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to a refinery in Chalmette, La., owned by American Sugar Refinery.
The industry provides employment to an estimated 1,000 local families if sugar mill employees, sugar cane growers and their employees are all accounted for, local experts said.
“We produce from $80 million to $100 million in revenue, most of which is spent in the Valley,” said Randy Rolando, president and CEO of RGV Sugar Growers. “It turns over four or five times in the (Texas) economy, so you gotta realize you are potentially dealing with a half a billion dollars in economic effect with the mill. So we are trying to be good neighbors to everyone in the community and at the same time keep the industry alive because it does provide a lot of jobs and it does put more money into the economy.”
Rolando said the past several years have been good for the industry, but worries as the price for sugar is lower than recent years and the crop has been affected by drought. He said recent intermittent rainfalls have helped alleviate some drought conditions and allowed already planted cane to grow. However, farmers have been reluctant to plant new cane because of limited water resources.
Because of the drought, mill experts said this year they expect to fall about 25,000 tons short of the average 150,000 tons of raw sugar produced annually, a cost differential of about $10.5 million.
“That’s at a depressed price. Prices are lower than last year. Right now sugar is at about 21 cents per pound, so it’s hard for us to break even at those levels,” Rolando said.
Sugar prices have dropped largely due to overproduction by other sugar cane growing countries, according to Dr. Luis Ribera, agricultural economist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
“The main reason for it to be down is there is overproduction in producing countries. Brazil mainly, that’s the number one, India is the number two producer,” Ribera said. “There is an overproduction of sugar and that is what is bringing prices down.”
In order to alleviate farmer’s financial concerns, experts at Texas A&M AgriLife Research said they are working toward developing a freeze resistant sugar cane variety and a drought resistant variety, which would help alleviate potential money loss concerns by farmers.
However, the cross breeding process can take up to 12 years from the first crossing, but experts said that through genetic marker assisted selection they can use DNA sequence information to expedite the process to about eight years.
“We are targeting cold resistance. That is the trait in which we are more advanced. But we are also targeting drought resistance,” Dr. Jorge da Silva, sugar cane breeder at Texas A&M AgriLife Research, said.
“One hundred percent of the sugar cane in our area is irrigated, and with this last drought we had last year was very severe and water was a limiting resource. So the growers are looking for varieties to be a bit more drought tolerant. That is our next target,” Da Silva said. “Hopefully one day there will be a cold resistant and drought resistant strain. That would be a big asset for the growers.
In order to keep costs down and maximize economic output, the sugar cane goes through a carefully planned harvesting and milling process that minimizes waste.
The sugar cane is grown by farmers, burned by mill employees to remove leaves and non-essential components and ground using steam powered by recycled “bagasse,” a residual fiber-like substance left over after the cane is crushed.
“That’s been the way ever since the sugar industry even took hold here in the United States or even in the Caribbean, is that you burn the waste in boilers and you power your grinding by steam,” Rolando said.
“We burn our waste in the boilers. It provides heat, which produces steam, which runs the factory. Therefore we don’t actually use any carbon fuel. It can run on natural gas, but its very expensive, so we run 100 percent on bagasse,” Rolando said.
Experts said that while ash may be a nuisance to neighbors, burning the cane on the field for harvesting is vital to the industry. Without burning excess materials the mill would become inefficient in extraction, raising costs for the mill to the point where they say the business would not survive.
“We the very best job that we can as far as harvesting, to minimize any kind of mud on the road or ash complaints,” Rolando said. “Although we may burn the cane, the amount of oxygen that is released by the growing crop is many times more than anything that is produced by the burning of cane.
“It’s been said that if you grow 50,000 acres in the Rio Grande Valley it’s like a rain forest as far as the amount of oxygen that is produced. And the amount of carbon dioxide that is absorbed is many times greater than what is given off during burning,” Rolando said.