Fate has dealt a cruel hand to Alabama farmers in the last few years — drought, spiking gas prices, higher operating costs and, more recently, a market meltdown that has severely affected farm commodity prices.

True to fashion, though, farmers are fighting back, and the end result of their efforts may be as sweet as sugar. As a matter of fact, the desired end result is sugar — sugarcane, a crop that is already grown profitably in other parts of the South and that many experts believe has a future in Alabama.

The growing demand for biofuel, especially a U.S. Air Force plan to begin powering its jet fleets with plant-based alternatives to conventional jet fuel by 2011, may open new opportunities for growing the crop in Alabama.

That, in turn, has sparked the interest of a California-based biotechnology company, Amyris, which has worked with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System to develop a 100-acre sugarcane demonstration field. If the demonstration proves successful, Amyris hopes to build a processing plant in southern Alabama to help meet the growing demand for biofuels.

Will it change the face of Alabama agriculture? That remains an open question, says Robert Goodman, an Extension economist and Auburn University associate professor who has been involved with the effort from the start.

Growing sugarcane could help farmers through tough times, especially when oil prices drive up operating costs.

That, as Goodman sees it, is another one of the beauties of raising sugarcane. As a biofuel crop, its fortunes are tied directly to the price of oil. When oil prices rise, so does the value of sugar cane.

“That’s one of the big benefits of this crop,” Goodman says. “As the price of oil goes up — and, consequently, fertilizer and diesel fuel — so does the price of sugarcane.”

The end result could be a crop that provides farmers with a valuable economic hedge — a profitable crop to offset rising farm operating costs associated with spiking oil prices.

So how sweet will Alabama agriculture eventually become? That remains an open question, Goodman says, because the question of raising sugarcane is still in the experimental stage.

Sugarcane has been grown successfully on experimental fields at Auburn University for more than a decade, and Goodman says it may even be possible to raise it farther north.

“How large an area are we talking about? We don’t know enough about sugarcane yet to know where to grow it or even how it should be grown.”
An optimist at heart, Goodman remains confident it can be done. And, in addition to providing an economic hedge to farmers, sugarcane also may provide a valuable farm management tool, especially as a rotation crop with peanuts.

“We’ve been searching my entire career for a grass crop that could be rotated with legume crops, such as peanuts,” he says.

Peanut yields have been shown to respond exceptionally well after roughly a five-year rotation with grass crops, such as bahia. 

The one hitch, though, is that bahia is usually a low-profit crop.

“The problem is that the product you have to sell during the bahia period of the long-term rotation simply doesn’t generate enough profit to justify the cost of growing it,” Goodman says.

Sugarcane is different, with the potential of providing growers not only with an effective rotational grass crop, but also with a highly profitable source of income.
“Sugarcane is very promising for that reason alone,” Goodman says.

Goodman concedes there are some agronomic disadvantages associated with the crop. Sugarcane, unlike cotton and peanuts, has to be vegetatively propagated, which requires some tilling.

“It works well, but it’s expensive and also labor intensive to plant,” says Goodman.

After that, though, sugarcane requires comparatively little maintenance.

“After planting, you’re largely done with tillage for the life of the planted crop,” he says, adding that the crop also leaves behind after harvest a considerable amout of organic material that aids the soil.

“There really could be a tremendous conservation benefit from growing sugarcane,” Goodman says.

The crop is also associated with fewer insect problems and diseases compared with many other crops.