Story and Photos by Bruce Shultz
ST. MARTINVILLE – Now that the 2017-18 sugarcane harvest is over, mill operators are turning their focus on maintenance and upgrades in preparation for the next harvest.
The work is extensive. Grinders that crush the cane have to be reworked. Steam plants that run the machinery have to be refurbished.
“We have to essentially tear everything apart, disassemble the pumps and turbines and inspect the boilers and vessels,” said Mike Comb, general manager of the LASUCA mill situated about 3 miles north of St. Martinville on Bayou Teche.
“Later, we have to remove the solids from our holding ponds.”
The down time also gives the mill time to resume work on expansion projects.
“We want to increase the mill capacity by roughly 50 percent,” Comb said. “It will be incremental over the next 5 years.”
Currently, the LASUCA mill has a capacity of 12,500 tons of cane per day, he said, and the expansion should increase that to 18,000-19,000 tons.
Comb said it’s inevitable that plans will be changed mid-stream. “When you first start planning, you may not think of everything.”
One thing that has Comb concerned is labor. The plant hires as many local workers as possible, he said, but foreign workers are needed. “You can’t find a trained sugar boiler in the U.S.”
He said getting visas for those workers from Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico and Guatemala is an increasingly difficult challenge.
Comb said the expansion will require installation of a new boiler and 5 new mill mechanisms to run alongside the existing 6 mills currently in operation.
The LASUCA mill is limited for space, squeezed between by Bayou Teche and Louisiana Highway 347, so Comb said the footprint for expansion is small.
The plant has to have enough space to store bagasse, the fibrous byproduct remaining after the juice has been squeezed out of the cane. Bagasse is burned to run the boilers at the plant to generate steam, but making sugar produces more bagasse than the plant needs for fuel, and the leftover material occupies a lot of space.
Comb said a research project at a mill near White Castle is working on development of the waste product into briquette-shaped for fuel for widespread use.
Comb said this year’s crop and grinding season both went well. Some years are good for farmers and some are good for mills. “This year was a good year all around. For us it was the largest crop we’ve ever processed.”
John Hebert, LASUCA agriculture division manager, said the mill ground slightly more than 1.31 million tons of cane, compared to 1.03 million tons last year, producing 300 million pounds of sugar.
The grinding season began Sept. 20 and ended Jan. 9, for a total of 113 days.
The harvest was not without challenges. Freezing weather caused problems getting the crop out of the fields and to the mill, Hebert said. Combines froze in their tracks, he said. “There were farmers who couldn’t get
moving for 4 to 6 hours.”
On the second day of the freeze, trucks were left running overnight and drivers occasionally pumped brakes to keep brake fluid from freezing. Farmers started combines at 3 a.m. and tractors with engines running were huddled around the combines to provide warmth.
In parishes further north, ice on the roads caused more problems, Hebert said.
“We took our trucks off the roads until they thawed.”
The recent freezes were enough to damage the crop, he said, but cool weather afterwards prevented a disaster. If warm weather had followed the freeze, the standing cane would have been infected by bacteria to enter the plant and produce a chemical that interferes with the sugar-making process.
But Hebert said new varieties, especially 299, have improved cold tolerance.
“We’ve got a lot of good varieties. The public breeding program is the reason our yields are what they are today.”
Stuart Gauthier, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Martin Parish, said potential varieties are tested in Missouri and Arkansas for cold-tolerance.
Hebert said this year’s good crop was the result of several factors.
First, a mild winter in 2016-17 followed by a warm spring made provided an ideal start for the crop, he said.
Then adequate moisture was available all year. “The crop never got anywhere near a drought situation.”
Summer temperatures were moderate, and that’s ideal for cane because it grows best between 85 and 92 degrees. Above 95 degrees, and the growth slows, he explained.
Diseases were controllable and the West Indian cane fly was not the problem that growers experienced in 2016, he said.
Gauthier said the fly is a severe pest about every 17 years. “It’s a problem that comes and goes.”
Sugarcane borer insects were less of a problem this past year, Hebert said.
Chemical controls are species specific and they are not as harmful to beneficial insects to, he said.
Varieties have been developed with better insect resistance.
Hebert said growing cane is inherently less difficult than growing most other crops that are cultivated for the result of the reproductive stage. “Sugarcane is a simple plant. You’re not worried about anything but the vegetative stage.”
Part of Hebert’s job is to help the co-op’s farmers with their crop, advising them on issues such as fertility, pest control and harvest preparation. “Whatever is good for the farmer is good for the mill.”
“My advice to them is completely unbiased. I’m just trying to help them make better crops.”
Hebert comes to the job with a degree in plant science from LSU, and an agricultural pedigree. His father, Raymond, and brother Josh are cane farmers. His grandfather and an uncle have served as directors on the mill’s board.
Hebert also organizes a fleet of 62 trucks that haul cane from the field to the mill.
This year, he said, the trucks hauled 500,000 tons of cane. The area of farmers ranges from the northernmost fields near Cheneyville, Jeanerette to the south and Vermilion Parish to the west.
LASUCA followed the trend of several other mills by starting its own harvesting division, cutting 90,000 tons this year among eight new cane farmers who don’t plan to buy their own harvesting equipment, Hebert said.
LASUCA has roughly 45 growers who produced an average of 36.5 tons of cane per acre on 35,000 acres.
“We’re getting several farmers who have been grain farmers,” Hebert said. He said many of the new farmers are in St. Landry Parish.
He said the state cane industry will probably increase by 40,000 acres in the next 4 years where the crop has never been grown. This year, cane was grown in Concordia Parish and near Jonesville.
About two-thirds of LASUCA farmers also rotate some of their land into Group IV soybeans, Hebert said.
Maintaining fallow ground still costs farmers about $150 an acre, so making $150 an acre on soybeans can cover those costs.
The LASUCA mill still processes whole stalk cane along with the billets produced in the harvest with combines. “We probably had an increase in whole-stalk harvesting this year,” Gauthier said.
Some farmers consider whole-stalk harvesting cheaper because of reduced fuel costs for running the old-school harvesters if the fields are dry, Gauthier explained.
Another part of Hebert’s job is to set the dates to start and end harvest. That judgment comes from the experience of Hebert and his growers who are surveyed midseason for their perspective on what they are seeing in the fields.
Most farmers can make a good estimate of their crop, he said, with a field inspection to look at plant height, plant population and comparisons to previous years. “At the end of August, you try to peg the numbers on the crop.”
Growers apply ripeners in late summer, so the harvest has to be set to accommodate a window of 28-35 days after the application.
Another factor is planting which usually occurs in August, but wet weather in some years, such as 2016, can cause mills to delay grinding. “In 2017, like a miracle, we had 2 weeks of dry weather,” Hebert recalled.
It’s also up to Hebert to set the quota for farmers after assessing the amount of cane remaining from the previous day, and after consulting with the mill superintendent. “I try to bring in just enough cane for 24 hours.”
Hebert had originally set Dec. 28 as the last day of grinding. “Then I realized I had underestimated the crop, that it was better than I thought.” So the last day was revised to receive cane for Jan. 7.
“I misjudged the crop by 50,000 tons which is about 4 and a half days of grinding.”
If a freeze is threatening, the co-op’s board of directors will decide if a surge of northern cane should be made to protect those growers.
Hebert said without this year’s freezing weather, all of LASUCA’s growers would
have finished at the same time.
Hebert said the Breaux Bridge Chamber of Commerce is honoring the parish’s farmers and mill this year. “That’s a pretty big deal for us, to be recognized for our controls to the economy and the community.
Gauthier said the award is well-deserved. “The mill’s value to the local economy is more than $75 million, and they are one of the largest employers in the parish.”
The mill was built sometime in the 1800s by the DeClouet family. “It predates the Civil War,” Comb said.
It was acquired in 1895 by the Levert family, then in 1974 it was sold to growers and it became the St. Martin Sugar Cooperative. It became LASUCA in 1993 when it merged with the Breaux Bridge Sugar Cooperative, and the Louisiana Sugar Cane Cooperative which was made into the LASUCA acronym.