By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer
Sugarcane, grown in the tropical or subtropical areas of the world, is actually a perennial grass cultivated for its thick stem, or cane. The canes are used to produce sucrose, familiar to most of us as sugar. Sugarcane products are also used as organic mulch, fuel, and production of paper and textiles.
Although sugarcane is a hardy plant, it can be plagued by sugarcane problems, including various sugarcane pests and diseases. Read on to learn how to identify issues with sugarcane.
Common Sugarcane Problems
Sugarcane pests and diseases are few but do occur. Here are the most common issues you may run into with these plants:
Sugarcane Mosaic: This viral disease shows up by light green discolorations on the leaves. It is spread by infected plant parts, but also by aphids. Maintain proper sanitation and control pests to keep the disease in check.
Banded Chlorosis: Caused primarily by injury due to cold weather, banded chlorosis is indicated by narrow bands of pale green to white tissue across the leaves. The disease, while unsightly, usually doesn’t do significant damage.
Smut: The earliest symptom of this fungal disease is the growth of grass-like shoots with small, narrow leaves. Eventually, the stalks develop black, whip-like structures that contain spores that spread to other plants. The best way to prevent and control smut is by planting disease-resistant varieties.
Rust: This common fungal disease shows up by tiny, pale green to yellow spots that eventually enlarge and turn reddish-brown or orange. The powdery spores transmit the disease to uninfected plants. Rust does significant crop damage in some areas.
Red Rot: This fungal disease, indicated by red areas marked with white patches, isn’t a problem in all growing areas. Planting disease-resistant varieties are the best solution.
Cane Rats: Cane rats, which decimate sugarcanes by gnawing out large areas of the stalks, cause millions of dollars in damage for sugarcane producers. Growers with a rat problem generally set snap traps at 50-feet (15 m.) intervals around the field. Anticoagulant rat controls, such as Wayfarin, are often used as well. The baits are placed in bird-proof or hidden feeding stations around the edges of fields.
Preventing Issues with Sugarcane
Remove weeds every three or four weeks, either by hand, mechanically, or with the careful use of registered herbicides.
Provide sugarcane with ample amounts of nitrogen-rich grass fertilizer or well-rotted manure. Sugarcane may need supplemental water during hot, dry periods.
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What the hell is a Scalawag?
There is no U.S. agricultural history without the expertise and labor of African people who were enslaved across the South, including the Gullah/Geechee people of the lower Atlantic Coast. But the violence of slavery and white supremacy is tied up with the crops that grew the global economy, embedding sugarcane, cotton, rice, and other historic commercial crops with a traumatic legacy.
For the Sapelo Island community—which includes the largest and most intact population of Gullah/Geechee descendants left in the U.S.—the decades-long fight against cultural erasure from developers has opened the door to reclaiming those crops as an indelible part of their heritage growing them on the community's own terms may be the way to preserve their own future on Sapelo.
We are two people using the model of liberation farming—honoring the ancestral agricultural traditions of those who first cultivated this land—to reclaim the determination, power, agency, and resolve of those who actually facilitated the growth of Southern foodways.
Support anti-racist, people-driven Southern media.One of Nik Heynen's students strips the leaves off sugarcane by hand during last fall's harvest. The sugarcane grown on the island is all processed by hand, not by machines or equipment.
Maurice, a small business owner from Sapelo and a descendant of those enslaved on the island, is collaborating with Nik, a white academic at University of Georgia, to continue a project begun by Cornelia Walker Bailey, Maurice's mother. Bailey is an author, a griot of the West African tradition of storytelling, and a Saltwater Geechee activist.
The idea to re-establish a series of heritage crops, including sugarcane, came through efforts of an important non-profit organization on the island called Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS). Established in 1993, SICARS mission is to preserve and regenerate the Saltwater Geechee community of Hog Hammock, which was founded in 1885 as Emancipation came to Sapelo.
SICARS was created at a time when Geechee land was increasingly lost to development. The mandate of SICARS was and still is to enable a future for Geechee descendants on the island by educating the ever-increasing number of visitors about their history on the island. The success of the agricultural project is directly tied to the ongoing vitality and success of SICARS' broader mission to preserve Saltwater Geechee Culture. Saltwater Geechee refers to the Gullah/Geechee people who ended up living on barrier islands Freshwater Geechee lived on the mainland in Georgia.
There is no U.S. agricultural history without the expertise and labor of African people who were enslaved across the South, including the Gullah/Geechee people of the lower Atlantic Coast.
In her book, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks about Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia, Bailey wrote, "We have little land of our own left. Our young leave and our old die. This pattern is repeated throughout the Sea Islands, except that on most islands, Geechee and Gullah people have been squeezed out as developers have rushed in."
Twenty-seven years later, we, and others involved with SICARS, believe liberation farming combines contemporary agricultural practice with age old struggles for freedom. While this might not differ much from farming practices in other Black communities, the cultural stakes on Sapelo Island ties these crops not only to the land of this island, but to the continuance of Gullah/Geechee culture itself.
See also: Marshland: Mythmaking in the Georgia Tidewater
The story of Sapelo Island is inseparable from African agricultural knowledge and innovation. Maurice's 5th great grandfather, Bilali Muhammad, was born sometime between 1760 and the 1770s in Timbo, Guinea. He was 14 when he was captured in tribal warfare, enslaved and taken across the Middle Passage to Nassau, Bahamas, where white planter Thomas Spalding purchased him and took him to Sapelo Island in 1803.
By 1810, because of the depth of his agricultural expertise, leadership and strong work ethic, he was assigned the responsibilities of overseeing all activities on the plantation. Beyond his agricultural knowledge, Muhammad also brought the earliest known Islamic text to the Americas through his capture a 13-page document of Muslim law and prayer written in the early 19th century. He supervised up to 500 enslaved people who ultimately helped establish a U.S. agricultural tradition that today is still central to the U.S. economy. While the plantation primarily grew rice and Sea Island cotton, sugarcane looms large in the history of the island, especially for the Geechee descendants who sprung out of the first Muslim community in the U.S.
Many stories about Sapelo focus on Spalding because he published in the important agricultural journals of his time about innovations on Sapelo. This history requires reclamation and redemption. The first varieties of sugarcane in the U.S. were grown on Sapelo, which was also the site of the first sugar mill in North America where crystalline sugar was produced for market. These transformative accomplishments belonged to Muhammad and his descendants.
The story of sugar is filled with as much terror and violence as any crop grown on the planet. As Michael Twitty discusses in his book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, the sweet burst of energy produced by sugar was first recognized in New Guinea about 10,000 years ago. Its culinary and medicinal properties were then shared across Southeast Asia, over to India, to Persia and the rest of the Islamic world before medieval Europe. The geographic component of the crop's history most important for Sapelo Island is that, as Twitty suggests, about 80 percent of all enslaved people brought to the Americas were taken to areas where sugarcane was the principal cash crop.
Even after Emancipation, many descendant families across Sapelo, including Maurice's family, still planted sugarcane and made syrup because they maintained strong connections to the land, were skilled at growing crops and wanted to maintain self-sufficiency.
See also: The fishkill on Georgia's Ogeechee River
But when Dixie Crystal, which was produced at an industrial processing plant up the coast in Savannah, Georgia, came to Sapelo Island and sold at the BJ Confectionary starting in the 1960s, most families on the island stopped growing and processing their own sugarcane. As we've seen in so many other instances, the process of mass commodification interrupted strong connections to the land and alienated people from it, creating pulsing waves of erasure through co-opting agricultural knowledge and tradition. While families did not need to grow sugarcane anymore, there were still some who did because they wanted to maintain ancestral connections to the land.
One of Maurice's earliest memories of sugarcane was when he was about eight years old. One of the last men on the island to grow cane and make syrup was named Allen Green. The kids would sit around and help the adults put the sugarcane stalks into the mill for grinding and then women boiled the cane syrup down to a golden brown. Everybody pitched in and worked together, and once the syrup settled, all those who helped came back and got their share.
The legacy of sugarcane for Maurice relates to a community working together and having families enjoy being on Sapelo together, safe and secure in having access to their ancestral land. It was never that they forgot about how horrible slavery was. Rather, the Geechee community created new experiences and activities to celebrate the crops they enjoyed and were skilled at growing.
Sapelo descendant Maurice Bailey and UGA professor Nik Heynen inspect some of the newly harvested sugarcane at the end of a long day's work on Sapelo Island.
The commercial land grabs of Geechee land on Sapelo have similar roots with land grabs on other Sea Islands along the coast—in particular the invalidation of Union General William T. Sherman's Special Field Order 15 in 1865. The Order would have assured property rights for freed people after the U.S. Civil War, but its revocation by President Andrew Johnson placed the land back into the hands of the white planter class, and eventually into the hands of wealthy white capitalists like Howard Coffin and Richard J. Reynolds, who purchased property all down the coast and on Sapelo Island in the 20th century. White developers continue to do so today at an alarming rate. While they used to resort to violence and theft to acquire these lands, today they are being assisted by others of Bilali's descendants looking to profit from selling family land.
Shifting the conversation about the South with news, arts, and storytelling.
These issues are complicated, and if they proceed at the current pace it will not be long before Sapelo Island is yet another vacation destination that was made possible through the cultural erasure of Saltwater Geechee ways of life. SICARS is making strides to fight off this erasure.
If Black lives matter, the experience, customs, and culture of Black folks' lives need to be amplified and revered in the face of ongoing white supremacist actions all across the U.S.
In 2015, a team of people led by Bailey, including William "Doc Bill" Thomas, Clemson University Professor Stephen Kresovich, Jerome Dixon, Maurice Bailey, and Stanley Walker, worked to establish Purple Ribbon Sugarcane on Sapelo Island. For a host of reasons, this initial planting did not succeed, and the sugarcane plants did not survive the summer. In April of 2016, Bailey recruited Nik to try again to establish SICARS sugarcane project with Maurice.
See also: How environmental justice is shaping a new civil rights movement in the South
We worked with folks from Clemson, students from UGA and Hog Hammock community members and planted 125 row feet of Purple Ribbon sugarcane on a newly established plot on SICARS' property.
Fitting the drama of any redemption tale, months after this planting, just as the baby cane started to emerge toward the sky, a punishing storm surge generated by Hurricane Irma flooded the Hog Hammock community in September of 2016. We feared that the saltwater that is so central to life on Sapelo had destroyed this second effort to grow cane. When Bailey passed away in October of that year, as we mourned her loss, we talked about how to celebrate her life and keep her vision alive. Once the floodwaters receded, we flushed the saltwater out with freshwater and the cane rebounded. We honored her life and struggle by working harder to establish the crop, just as we promised her we would and continue to do so to this day.
Today, SICARS has acres of land under cultivation, mostly of sugarcane, but we are also growing an abundance of Geechee Red Peas. We are working to reestablish the sour oranges first brought to Sapelo by the French colonists who established the Chocolate plantation in the 1700s. We are reestablishing indigo that has not been grown on Sapelo since before emancipation, through a partnership with the International Center for Indigo Culture (ICIC) and the State Botanical Garden at the University of Georgia (SBG). And we are establishing a local variety of garlic, which plays a special role in the lore of the island Bailey writes in her book that garlic was used to revive her when she nearly died as a child.
In establishing SICARS' farm with these and other planned heritage crops, we are working toward production and sales to generate revenue that can help with the revitalization of the Hog Hammock community. We are also working to lock Geechee culture into the landscape for generations to come.
For Nik, as a white academic, the connections to sugarcane and indigo have always been confusing and complicated given that they force him to continuously confront the white supremacist heritage within his own biography and racial history. We talk a lot about these things together in the fields, and have come to recognize that our years of partnering together and working in the hot sun is not about performing white guilt or seeking forgiveness of the crimes of whiteness, but working toward a new kind of solidarity.
Nik sees it as helping the University of Georgia do better to live up to its responsibilities as the oldest public university in the United States. This is especially important given that UGA's land grant mission was born out of slavery and white supremacy. One concrete way Nik and Maurice are pushing UGA to do more is through creating and co-directing UGA's Cornelia Walker Bailey Program on Land and Agriculture to better partner with SICARS' efforts.
See also: Too heartbreaking to leave, too expensive to stay. More than 802,000 homes are at risk of climate disaster—mostly in the South
Redemption stories often center on human failings to be addressed, restored and recuperated. How can we think through ongoing abolitionist efforts to intersect with these stories? If we are to take seriously the possibility of reckoning with the South and whiteness, the ways these social processes have shaped so much of the U.S. South, perhaps starting with the most mundane and shared experiences of growing crops that can provide economic development is a place to start.
If Black lives matter, the experience, customs, and culture of Black folks' lives need to be amplified and revered in the face of ongoing white supremacist actions all across the U.S. While it makes sense why some Black folks and white folks can only see the history of slavery in the face of sugarcane growing on land that was once a plantation, we see hope and possibility of redemption and survival of the Saltwater Geechee culture and Black folks' heritage more broadly.
Sugarcane is propagated primarily by the planting of cuttings. The sections of the stalk of immature cane used for planting are known as seed cane, or cane sets, and have two or more buds (eyes), usually three. Seed cane is planted in well-worked fields. Mechanical planters that open the furrow, fertilize, drop the seed cane, and cover it with soil are widely used.
Seed cane is spaced 1.4 to 1.8 metres (4.5 to 6 feet) apart at densities 10,000 to 25,000 per hectare (4,000 to 10,000 per acre). Under favourable conditions, each bud germinates and produces a primary shoot. Root bands adjacent to each bud give rise to a large number of roots, and each young shoot develops its own root system. Tillering, or sprouting at the base of the plant, takes place, and each original seed cane develops into a number of growing canes, forming a stool. The plant crop is obtained from these stools.
Another method of cane propagation is by ratooning, in which, when the cane is harvested, a portion of stalk is left underground to give rise to a succeeding growth of cane, the ratoon or stubble crop. The ratooning process is usually repeated three times so that three economical crops are taken from one original planting. The yield of ratoon crops decreases after each cycle, and at the end of the last economical cycle all stumps are plowed out and the field is replanted.
Sugarcane is grown in various kinds of soils, such as red volcanic soils and alluvial soils of rivers. The ideal soil is a mixture of sand, silt, and clay particles, with a measure of organic material. The land is plowed and left to weather for a time before subsoiling (stirring up the subsoil) is carried out. The crop demands a well-drained soil, and drains—on the surface, underground, or both—are provided according to the topographic conditions of the fields.
To attain good yields, sugarcane requires 2,000 to 2,300 mm (80 to 90 inches) of water during the growing period. When precipitation is deficient, irrigation, either by spraying or by applying water in furrows, can make up for the deficiency. The growth period for cane crops varies considerably according to the region: 8–9 months in Louisiana, U.S. 15 months in Australia and Taiwan 18–22 months in Hawaii, South Africa, and Peru. The lowest temperature for good cane-plant growth is about 20 °C (68 °F). Continuous cooler temperature promotes the maturation of cane, as does withholding water. Harvesting and milling begin in the dry, relatively cool season of the year and last for five to six months.
Fertilizers are applied to sugarcane from the beginning of planting through the whole growth cycle but not during the ripening period. Optimum amounts of fertilizers (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) vary greatly with soil types, climatic conditions, and the kind and length of the growing cycle.
To secure a good crop, weeds in the cane fields must be attacked until the cane stools develop a good canopy, which checks weed growth. Weeding, still largely manual, is done with a hoe, though mechanical cane weeders with attached rakes have been developed. Chemical herbicides are widely used.
The mature cane is harvested by both manual and mechanical means. Some mechanical harvesters are able to sever and discard the tops of erect crops and cut cane stalks, which are delivered into a bin trailer for transport to the mill by tractor or light railway wagon.
Louisiana’s Sugarcane Industry
The harvested cane is loaded into trailers and taken to mills, such as this one in St. James. There are 17 mills in Louisiana. (Photo by John Wozniak)
No one variety has had such an impact on the Louisiana sugar industry as LCP 85-384. Behind Kenneth Gravois is the variety. (Photo by Mark Claesgens)
Sugarcane has been an integral part of the south Louisiana economy and culture for more than 200 years. When the Jesuit priests first brought sugarcane to Louisiana in 1751, little did they know that they were laying the foundation for an industry that now contributes $2 billion to the Louisiana economy. In the last century, research advances in both production and processing have kept Louisiana’s sugar industry competitive. In these recent times of stagnant and decreasing sugar prices, increased production efficiencies and new processing technologies have helped the Louisiana sugar industry remain profitable. The focus of LSU AgCenter sugarcane research is to help maintain a competitive and viable sugar industry in Louisiana.
Sugarcane is a tropical crop trying to survive in Louisiana’s temperate climate. The ability to grow sugarcane in Louisiana and increase sugar yields to levels attained in the tropics has largely been the result of sugarcane breeding efforts. These efforts began in Louisiana in the early 1920s. The LSU AgCenter’s most recent variety release, LCP 85-384 in 1993, was a cooperative effort involving the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Houma, La., and the American Sugar Cane League. LCP 85-384 has revolutionized Louisiana’s sugar industry not only with yields up to 25 percent higher than other varieties but also with the ability to provide additional annual cuttings of stalks, termed stubble crops (because the new crop of stalks develops from the stubble remaining after harvest). The typical rotation for Louisiana sugarcane has been to harvest a plantcane crop and two stubble crops from a single planting of sugarcane. With LCP 85-384, farmers can obtain three to four stubble crops with a single planting. Because of the heavy tonnage, the new variety has a tendency to fall down or lodge. Because of this, a new combine harvesting system was introduced in Louisiana in the mid 1990s. Combine harvesting systems are better suited to varieties such as LCP 85-384 and have improved harvest efficiency in Louisiana.
In 2000, LCP 85-384 occupied 71 percent of the state’s acreage. Indications for the 2001 crop are for this variety to account for more than 80 percent of the state’s acreage. No variety in the history of the Louisiana sugar industry has had such an impact.
Sugarcane diseases have long plagued the sugar industry in Louisiana and nearly caused its demise in the 1920s. Jeffrey W. Hoy, LSU AgCenter sugarcane pathologist, has worked to keep new sugarcane diseases at bay. Since the late 1970s, four sugarcane diseases have moved into South Louisiana. First was rust. Its control has been mainly through disease-resistant varieties. Then sugarcane smut was introduced in the early 1980s, and one of Louisiana’s most promising varieties of the time, CP 73-351, had to be removed from cultivation. In the early 1990s, leaf scald disease was detected, and more recently, yellow leaf syndrome was found in sugarcane fields in Louisiana. Varietal resistance has been the primary means of sugarcane disease control, and the sugarcane pathology program works closely with the breeding program to minimize the disease impact.
Ratoon stunting disease (RSD), however, cannot be controlled through resistant varieties. To help control this disease, Hoy established the Sugarcane Disease Detection Laboratory in 1997. Because of this lab, farmers can rely on obtaining healthy seedcane, which is the primary means of RSD control. As indicated in this issue of Louisiana Agriculture, the AgCenter, along with Certis USA, provider of Kleentek seedcane, and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, has helped turn the tide against a disease that has caused significant losses in sugarcane for many years.
Hoy also led the AgCenter’s research efforts with billet planting. Billets are the cut pieces of stalk produced by a combine harvester. Sugarcane in Louisiana has traditionally been planted using whole stalks, which helped control stalk rot diseases. With combine harvesters, farmers have the capability of planting billets instead of whole stalks. However, Louisiana’s cold, wet winters and stalk rot diseases make the success of billet planting more tenuous. Hoy’s work has outlined steps that help ensure success with billet planting, such as using longer billet lengths and proper combine harvester settings.
Louisiana’s most common sugarcane insect pest is the sugarcane borer. Insecticides have long offered the main control for this pest. In the early 1990s, however, environmental problems became apparent with the available insecticides. Eugene T. “Gene” Reagan, LSU AgCenter entomologist, began looking for safer alternative insecticides and other means of sugarcane borer control. After screening several experimental insecticides, Confirm was labeled for use in controlling sugarcane borers. The new insecticide is specific, controlling only the sugarcane borer without destroying beneficial predator insects. Confirm also is safe for the environment, eliminating off-target problems. Through a system of integrated pest management safe for the environment, sugarcane borers are now effectively controlled.
Because successive crops of sugarcane are grown from a single planting, weed control is a major concern. Until recently, the introduction of new herbicides for sugarcane was rare. James L. Griffin leads the LSU AgCenter’s efforts in evaluating new herbicides and control measures for weeds encountered by Louisiana’s sugarcane producers. Several new herbicides are being evaluated to give farmers more weed control options. Griffin’s work also includes getting the most out of currently labeled herbicides, such as fine-tuning conditions for johnsongrass control with asulam. In addition to this work, sugarcane varieties are tested for tolerance to all herbicides so that yield potential is not decreased at the expense of weed control. To realize the maximum potential of sugarcane, careful weed control is a must.
Other LSU AgCenter sugarcane production research includes soil fertility, rotational crops, cold tolerance, engineering and economic studies. With fertilizer prices increasing because of rising natural gas prices, efficient use of fertilizers is of utmost importance. William B. Hallmark and Charles W. Kennedy address research issues to make the most out of fertilizer inputs and other soil amendments. Both Howard “Sonny” Viator and Griffin have looked at some of the positive aspects of growing soybeans in the fallow year of the sugarcane crop cycle. Opportunities for increased weed control and supplementary income fit in well with sugarcane farming practices. Benjamin L. Legendre, extension sugarcane specialist, conducts cold tolerance studies. Sugarcane harvest in Louisiana can often occur after a killing freeze. Legendre’s work provides information regarding how well differ ent sugarcane varieties can withstand freezing temperatures. Michael P. Mailander is partnering with Cameco Industries, Inc., to develop a yield monitor for sugarcane combine harvesters. The ability to map sugarcane yields will help farmers accurately determine field yields and identify low yield production areas within a field. Michael Salassi leads the AgCenter’s efforts on the economics of sugarcane production. Economic analyses, such as optimizing crop cycle length, the feasibility of precision land leveling and annual sugarcane budgets, are just a few of his projects. With falling sugar prices, careful attention to production costs is a must if sugar producers and processors are to survive.
Producing sugarcane with minimal adverse environmental effects is receiving increased research attention within the LSU AgCenter. Magdi Selim and Richard Bengtson have conducted studies on the fate of pesticides and sediment in runoff water during sugarcane cultivation. Their efforts now include studies to determine the water quality effects of maintaining the trash residue after combine harvesting with and without burning. These studies are important in developing Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Louisiana’s sugarcane farmers. BMPs are voluntary practices farmers use to improve water quality in the surrounding environment. An AgCenter survey showed that many of Louisiana’s sugarcane farmers are using BMPs in their operations. The AgCenter has also helped sugarcane farmers learn to burn cane to minimize environmental problems. Most of the sugarcane farmers in the state have attended training workshops conducted by the AgCenter on controlled agricultural burning.
The Audubon Sugar Institute conducts sugar processing research with the mission “to foster a center of excellence for applied and original sugar research, which exceeds the expectations of our stakeholders in Louisiana and the international sugar industry, through innovative research, technology transfer and education.” Peter Rein leads the research effort at the institute. Research goals include milling efficiency and a more diversified sugar processing industry.
Sugarcane production and processing are complicated businesses. The LSU AgCenter is committed to conducting research to meet the needs of this vital South Louisiana industry.
(This article appeared in the fall 2001 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)