HAVANA, March 5 (Reuters) - Cuba began exporting some raw sugar in late February after a disastrous start to the harvest, foreign traders and shippers said this week, but tonnage will fall far short of plans.
Cuba produced 1.8 million tonnes of raw sugar during the 2016-2017 harvest, and hoped to reach 1.6 million tonnes this season despite damage caused by Hurricane Irma, but out-of- season rainfall in December and January all but paralyzed harvesting, forcing cancellation of shipping contracts.
February, in contrast, proved one of the driest on record, allowing mills to open as plantations dried out, but the poor quality of cane, and mill and transportation breakdowns continued to hamper output, according to local media reports.
Reuters estimates raw sugar production is more than 300,000 tonnes behind schedule, based on provincial media reports.
For example, eastern Las Tunas reported it had failed to produce 60,000 tonnes of raw sugar through February and central Camaguey 30,000 tonnes.
"The province has failed to produce 49 percent of what was planned to date, while output is at 22 percent of the overall plan," Invasor, central Ciego de Avilas Communist Party weekly reported last week.
The province reported a plan of around 140,000 tonnes when the harvest began.
Due to the hurricane most mills did not open this season until around the New Year on Jan. 1, several weeks later than usual.
The harvest runs from late November through April when the weather is normally dry and temperatures cool and the cane plants yield the most sugar. Yields and output fall significantly after that as hot and humid summer weather sets in.
Many mills are now expected to remain open into May, and even June, if the weather permits.
"This is one of the worst harvests I can remember. We are shipping some sugar, but not nearly what we contracted for," one trader said, requesting anonymity.
A local agricultural expert termed the harvest "a disaster" and said he would be surprised if raw sugar production reached 1.3 million tonnes to 1.4 million tonnes.
Cuba consumes between 600,000 and 700,000 tonnes of sugar a year and has an agreement to sell China 400,000 tonnes annually. It sells the rest on the open market.
Sugar was long Cubas most important industry and export with output reaching 8 million tonnes in 1991, but today it ranks eighth in exports behind sectors such as tourism, tobacco, nickel and pharmaceuticals. (Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)