Sugar harvest revives expectations…and agonies

Untimely rains and industrial mistakes are threatening to moderate the 10-year record planned for that agribusiness in the current harvest.

The rains have hindered the harvesters’ access to the cane fields, in addition to affecting production indicators and industrial yields.

Though some of Cuba’s agricultural regions are starting to send out signs of concern because of the advance of the drought, isolated but intense precipitations in February and March spoiled the march for sugar production in two key months for the harvest. After a first irregular stage, setbacks blamed just on the weather put at risk the growth announced for the 2013-2014 harvest.

The so-called small harvest – until the close of December – began on November 20 with the early incorporation of a much greater number of sugar mills than in 2012. This factor, together with a greater availability of cane in the fields, encouraged the plans to take an 18 percent leap in sugar production: in this case, it would go up from last harvest’s 1.5 million to 1.8 million tons, the highest production in the last 10 years.

The growth recovered three years ago is reviving the expectations regarding an industry that, after having sustained the Cuban economy for centuries, almost totally collapsed starting the 1990s. The evolution of recent months, however, is threatening to moderate the previewed record, especially because of the heavy rains in the eastern part of the country.

At the close of December, the Cuban sugar mills had produced 10 percent less than the plan, though the amount of sugar was 13 percent more than what had been produced in the same period the previous year. The reiterated technical difficulties in eight sugar mills, including the country’s major producer, the Antonio Guiteras, in the eastern province of Las Tunas, led to the first big setback of the present season.

The out-of-season rains appeared in December, with costly stops for the production yields, productivity and plans. Problems due to bad preparation and inefficient industrial repairs prior to the harvest were added to the uncomfortable precipitations. In addition to Las Tunas province, the sugar mills in Holguín, Granma, also in eastern Cuba, suffered a great amount of breakdowns and interruptions, while in the west Artemisa and Matanzas faced similar conflicts, according to the report by the Azcuba Business Group.

Only seven provinces met the plans in the small harvest. Several of those that did not were in the territories that have the biggest weight in sugar production, like Villa Clara and Las Tunas.

With the new year, the risk again increased of not meeting the plan – in the previous harvest, the sugar industry increased production by eight percent, but produced around 200,000 tons less than the previewed amount.

The rains that usually lessen agriculture’s worries, returned in mid February with an intensity that was untimely for cane-cutting in some regions. The combination of the precipitations and a mean temperature more in tune with the summer months has generated a level of humidity that delays the maturation of the sugarcane and affects the industrial yield, in addition to hindering the harvesters’ access to the cane fields.

An Azcuba specialist, Liobel Hernández Pérez, recently attributed the 64 percent that was not produced to objective problems and the rest to subjective situations. He was alluding, in the first case, essentially to climatic factors and, with the other, to human mistakes, as the cause for the delays.

As a reflection of the expectations being revived regarding sugar, the Cuban press is again turning its attention to a sector that, in addition to being anguished by the climate, had almost disappeared from the means for years.

The daily Granma described as costly the delays up to February. “The harvest already could have had 20 percent more of the produced raw sugar,” it revealed.

Las Tunas, one of the provinces that continued at a standstill in March with the biggest delays – together with Granma and Matanzas -, until the second month of the year registered an accumulated 115.2 millimetres of rain, double the local historical mean. This performance forced two of the three sugar mills currently in operation to stop, including again the Antonio Guiteras, weakened moreover due to industrial mistakes.

Important sugar mills in the provinces of Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Villa Clara and Mayabeque also reported lost time, higher production costs and non-fulfilment of the plans due to precipitations, late start-ups and technical faults.

The president of Azcuba, Orlando Celso García, reported a decrease in the production pace for February. “It has been raining insistently throughout the country and that has affected almost all the grinding,” he said to the press. “Today we are not achieving the planned industrial yield and some plantations are showing a delay in their maturation. These are decisive factors that hinder the advance of the harvest,” Celso García said.

Despite having “the necessary cane,” the topmost executive of the Cuban sugar agribusiness admitted that “our production plans could be at risk before next May.” The perspective of extending the harvest beyond April is generating a feeling of nervousness and concern because the rainy season usually starts in spring. The difficulties suffered until now could then become an insurmountable curse. This agribusiness knows well that the rains catch up to those who harvest late. (2014)

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