Kenneth Gravois, Sugar Cane Specialist

In Louisiana, growing up on a 5th generation sugar cane farm is not unusual. A little less likely is the fact that Kenneth Gravois took his love for sugar cane and farming in a unique direction – one that placed him as a leading authority on the industry and its importance to his beloved home state of Louisiana.

From a young age, Kenneth had an academic streak that helped him see possibilities in and ask questions about sugar cane, agriculture, sustainability, and environmental impact. This persistent inquisitiveness took him to Louisiana State University (LSU) where he earned his bachelor degree in crop science and a masters and PhD in plant breeding.

His goal has always been to find ways to improve and support the Louisiana sugar cane industry. A student of history, Ken also points out that well over 100 years ago, the state was already thinking ahead for ways to protect and improve its leading row crop.

In 1877, after the American Civil War, Louisiana sugar cane growers recognized the need to invest in research and science to stay competitive with growers in other states and other countries. The Louisiana Sugar Planters Association was formed in 1877 with the foresight to establish the Louisiana Sugar Experiment Station in 1885 – even before the federal government established its network of state-based agriculture research stations.

Today, Kenneth provides leadership for the LSU AgCenter’s Sugar Research Station which has descended from the original Louisiana Sugar Experiment Station. One thing he sees becoming more important to the scientific research community, and to his work in particular, is connecting with consumers.

Over the last 2-3 years, Ken has noticed a trend of large commercial customers requiring processors and refiners to show how they are good stewards on environmental, sustainability, and community fronts. He sees these emerging certification programs as extensions of consumers asking the same questions when they go to the store to purchase their favorite products.

Connecting more directly with consumers to assure them of the sugar industry’s long held commitments to these very issues is something that Kenneth and the LSU AgCenter are focusing on as well. With a revamped website better geared to explain agricultural science to consumers; a dedicated sugar cane school; and helping growers, processors, and refiners appreciate the importance of engagement, he is hoping to open and maintain lines of communications.

“We see this all around us today; people are disconnected from where their food comes from. Even if they drive past a farm every day, they don’t actually know how it works.” At the same time, he notes, more and more consumers are demanding to know how that food is made and its impact on the world in which we all live.

“Answering those questions is no longer an option – we have to do it, and do it ourselves. Otherwise, someone else is going to do it for us.” And, when it comes to complex issues like science and agriculture, it’s easy for people to get confused and look for easy answers that are often inaccurate and promoted by our opponents.

So, experts like Kenneth, who literally grew up in and has dedicated his life to the sugar cane industry, are helping to better communicate what makes sugar such an important, and enjoyable, part of people’s lives.

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