Sugar cane is a type of grass with a bamboo-like jointed stem that grows up to five metres in height and five centimetres in diameter. Since sugar cane is a tropical plant, it can only be cultivated in countries near the equator, or in areas where there are average temperatures of 24°C (75°F), combined with strong sunshine and heavy seasonal rainfall or plentiful supplies of water for irrigation. Major cane sugar regions include Brazil, India, China, Thailand, Australia, South Africa, Mexico and Guatemala.
Sugar cane is cultivated on large farms called plantations. Like any other plant, the sugar cane originates from seeds. However, following the harvesting of the first mature crop, small sections of the cane stalk called "setts" are replanted and soon sprout, producing a new crop of sugar cane (called 'ratoons'). New setts are not needed each year as new "ratoons" continue to grow from the old roots for several years, until the field needs to be "re-sett" and the cycle begins again.
In general, sugar cane is harvested in the cooler months in each hemisphere. Unlike sugar beet, sugar cane cannot be stored after harvest, and must be transported quickly to nearby processing mills to minimize deterioration.
At maturity, the outside skin of the cane stalk becomes hard and golden yellow, protecting the soft fibre of the inside vascular bundles that store the accumulating cane juice. In addition, the sharp edged leaves of the plant shrivel as the dryer harvesting season approaches, increasing the amount of the sugar within the protected stalks. On average, one hectare of ground yields roughly one hundred tonnes of sugar cane vegetation. This, in turn, will yield between five and ten tonnes of raw sugar, depending upon soil quality, seasonal climate variations and harvesting efficiencies. When cane is harvested, it has a sugar content of approximately 14% by weight, depending on variety of cane and geographical location. Sugar content also varies from season to season.