Revised April 2022
gar is an important agricultural commodity that is primarily produced from either sugarcane or sugarbeets. The U.S. is the 5th largest producer of and the 3rd largest market for sugar; the U.S. is a net importer of sugar. Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) is a highly productive tropical grass native to Asia where it has been cultivated for over 4,000 years. By 400 BC, methods for manufacturing sugar from sugarcane had been developed in India. Europeans were introduced to sugar during the Crusades. By the 11th century AD, sugar was being imported throughout Europe. Christopher Columbus likely brought the sugarcane plant to the West Indies. Today, over 75 percent of the world's sugar comes from sugarcane.
Sugarcane was one of the first "cash crops" of early colonial America. It grew plentifully in the southern states and was a major source of income for many plantations. High labor costs in the United States led to the industry's rapid conversion to mechanical harvesting in the early 1990s. Currently the U.S. produces about 9 million tons of sugar each year, with sugar from sugarcane accounting for 40 to 45% of the total produced.
Sugar cane is a perennial warm season grass which means it doesn’t need to be replanted every year. When harvested, it's cut just above the root level so new sprouts will grow, ready to be harvested again in 10-12 months. Sugarcane plants grow to be 10-20 feet high.
Sugarcane is grown primarily in the tropics and subtropics. In the United States, sugarcane is grown commercially in Louisiana, Florida and Texas. Sugarcane was once a significant crop in Hawaii, but the last sugar mill in that state closed in 2016. Sugarcane for sugar was harvested from 903,400 acres in 2020 and had a value of $1,403 million. The average yield per acre was 38 tons.
Sugarcane is planted, usually in the fall of the year, by using the vegetative stalks of the cane and not seeds. Plants arise from the joints on the stalk and are typically harvested for the first time the following fall. New stalks emerge after the crop is harvested and two to four additional annual cuttings (called ratoons) are taken before the land is fallowed and replanted. To be profitable, sugarcane must be produced relatively close to a sugar factory. There are government policies that effectively limit the amount of sugar that can be produced in the U.S. but which support the price growers receive, thereby limiting the expansion of sugarcane acreage.
Sugarcane in the U.S. is now mechanically harvested, though in much of the world where labor is less expensive it is still harvested by hand. At the factories, the cane is crushed to extract the sugar and the juice boiled down and later separated into sugar crystals for further processing and molasses. The stalk that remains after crushing is called bagasse and is often burned to power the factory but can be used for the production of paper, building boards, plastics and for mulching or animal bedding.
Consumption and Industrial Use
After peaking in 1972 at 102 pounds per person, the use of added sugar (both cane and beet) in domestic food and beverage industries declined to a low of 60 pounds per person by 1986. In following years, per person sugar use by these industries fluctuated between 61 and 69 pounds. By 2020, according to USDA sources, Americans consumed 69.0 pounds of refined sugar per person per year. In contrast, Americans consumed 35.9 pounds of corn-derived sweeteners, which is down significantly from 63.8 pounds per person when consumption peaked in 1999 (ERS).
Sugar deliveries to food manufacturers generally constitute a major portion of refined sugar deliveries. Of those industries, baking and cereal industries are generally the largest end users of sugar followed by confectionery makers.
The process of separating sugar from the sugarcane plant is accomplished through two steps: sugar mill crushing and sugar refinery extraction. Sugarcane is initially processed into raw sugar at mills near the cane fields. Because cane is bulky and relatively expensive to transport, it must be processed as soon as possible to minimize sugar deterioration. The raw sugar is then shipped to refineries to produce refined sugar. The final products of refining include powdered, granulated and brown sugar, which is sugar that contains some molasses.
The number of sugarcane mills has declined as their efficiencies have improved. Currently there are 16 operating sugarcane mills in the U.S. with 11 in Louisiana, four in Florida and one in Texas. Hawaii no longer grows sugarcane after its last remaining mill closed in 2016.
The type of sugar produced by sugarcane is called sucrose. It is used as a sweetening agent for foods and in the manufacture of cakes, candies, preservatives, soft drinks, alcohol and numerous other foods.
This thick, dark liquid remains when the sugar has been removed from the boiled cane juice. It is used primarily as animal feed but can also be sold as syrup, to flavor rum and other foods or as an additive for ethyl alcohol.
Bagasse (baa gas)
After the juice has been extracted from the sugarcane stalk, this plant material remains. While generally burned as fuel for the mills, it could be used as a feedstock for ethanol production.
The increased demand for ethanol has generated interest in using U.S. sugarcane as a feedstock for producing the fuel. Sugarcane, which produces a large amount of biomass per acre in the form of bagasse and cane stalks and leaves, would be a viable feedstock for the cellulosic conversion of biomass into ethanol. Instead of having to first convert the sugarcane to sugar juice, ethanol could be produced by processing the entire plant.
In the United States, the Clewiston Sugar Factory in Clewiston, Florida, is powered by bagasse. In Brazil, sugar and ethanol plants produce electricity by burning bagasse and cane straw in boilers to produce steam that generates power. Currently, the plants generate about 1,800 megawatts in surplus electricity, or about 3 percent of the country’s overall needs. According to UNICA (the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association), the sugarcane industry could generate an average of 15,000 megawatts by 2020, or enough to supply up to 15 percent of Brazil’s total electricity needs.
Current U.S. sugar policy provides some assurances of reasonable returns for sugarcane producers even in the face of competition from increasing imports and a well-established corn-derived sweetener industry. Nevertheless, an analysis by the Sugar and Sweeteners Team of USDA’s Economic Research Service suggests that the U.S. market will continue to depend on refined sugar imports from Mexico and Central America to meet demand.
Crop Production Annual Summary, 2022, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), USDA.
Crop Values Annual Summary, National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS), USDA.
The Economic Feasibility of Ethanol Production from Sugar in the United States, 2006, USDA and Louisiana State University.
Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook, 2022, Economic Research Service (ERS), USDA.
Sugar and Sweeteners Yearbook Tables, ERS, USDA.
Sugar Backgrounder, 2021, ERS, USDA.
The Sugar Association
Sugarcane Production Handbook, 2019, University of Florida Extension.
Sugarcane Production Handbook, 2014, Louisiana State University Extension.