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Labor, climate woes dent sweet success for King Sugar in 2022-2023 crop

Posted: Friday, June 16, 2023. 7:37 am CST.

By Aaron Humes: With only hours to go on Thursday morning before Belize Sugar Industries Limited’s (BSI) Tower Hill gates closed at noon, cane trucks were frantically racing to join the queue.

It could be the difference between crossing the million-tonne mark of cane delivered to the factory and falling short for the first time in years, with latest reports showing just 996 thousand tonnes of cane delivered from which about 104 thousand tons of sugar were processed.

BSI/ASR estimates a 35 percent decrease in sugarcane deliveries for the season and underperformance compared to the preseason estimate of the Sugar Cane Production Committee (SCPC), when compared to seasons past.

But who are the culprits? Climate change is one, as after flooding wrecked fields during last season’s off-crop, the moisture disappeared with the emergence of drought over the North in the first half of 2023. Another is the destructive froghopper insect while a third is new and unexpected – a shortage of cane cutters, who want more money for working in more intense heat.

At Thursday morning’s “Sweet Wrapup” ceremony at Tower Hill, Mac McLachlan, Country Manager/Vice President for BSI/ASR, waxed philosophical about the industry’s travails this year: “There is an old adage in this industry that every crop is different. This one has been different in a number of ways. But, as always the number one thing to get across today is a big thank you to everyone in the industry, the cane cutters, the farmers, everyone working in this factory, seven hundred people. This is what brings the economic life blood to the north of the country.”

He added that it was a shame the crop did not match the efforts made at investment in the mill, which had no major capability issues and actually had to slow down to match the level of cane supply coming in, such was its efficiency.

According to Vladimir Puck, the Chairman of the Corozal Sugarcane Producers Association, cane cutters, once in ready supply in what has always been a family business, have been abandoning the cane fields for more lucrative opportunities, in his community specifically tourism and construction: “… many migrated to the cayes, due to the change of the wages instead of doing two hundred dollars under the sun, well they prefer going to the [Commercial Free Zone] and other places and also the construction of the road. I see every now and then they are there, even as flag men. But we need to sit down as an industry and analyze it and very quickly before the start of a crop.”

Olivia Avilez, Cane Farmers Relations Manager at BSI/ASR, agreed: “How can we improve labor conditions? We are looking at hotter weather conditions at the time. The cane cutters don’t want to cut in those conditions. So, we have to look at shade, things such as hydration and rest. This is something implemented all over the region. It is a routine which cane cutters have to take a rest during cutting. They have to drink water, enough water and not just soft drink. In fact, soft drink is not the best thing. And they have to take a rest and that improves production on the ground.

More positively, Maclachlan says Belize can take advantage of higher worldwide prices for value added sugar to further expand into markets such as CARICOM: “We have been maximizing our production of added value sugars where we get a higher price for those sugars in the market. We have really been focusing on the CARICOM market this year. Four years ago, we were shipping two thousand tons into CARICOM, this year we were aiming at twenty thousand.”

Left unmentioned were the travails with BSI/ASR’s biggest partner turned adversary, the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers’ Association (BSCFA), who made no appearance at Tower Hill on Thursday.

Final figures will be out in the next few days as the millers get ready to make final payments for the season.

 

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