harvesting sugar in louisiana

By Chris Hogan, Sugar Association Vice President of Communications

If you spend much time with folks who work in the sugar industry, you learn a few things pretty quickly. Sugar is not simply a crop or an ingredient, nor even just a livelihood, for the thousands of farmers who grow and process sugar beets and sugar cane. It’s a passion. It’s tradition. Often, it’s a family business, stretching back multiple generations.

The path from plant to product is also far more complicated than you might think. The sheer effort and hard work that go into producing the sugar we casually pull off a supermarket shelf is amazing.

With help from the American Sugar Cane League, I had the opportunity in November 2018 to tour cane sugar operations in Louisiana. It was harvest season, and the whole industry was in full swing. From the farm to the factory and even the coffee shop in town, it was a remarkable experience. Louisiana cane production and processing support approximately 27,000 jobs, and the state produces about 20% of the sugar grown in the United States.

In fact, of the U.S. sugar-producing areas, Louisiana is the oldest and most historic. Sugar cane arrived in the state in 1751 and was first planted at what is now an intersection on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street.

USDA Agricultural Research Service Sugarcane Research Laboratory

The first stop on our tour was in Houma for a fascinating visit to the USDA Agricultural Research Service Sugarcane Research Laboratory. This vital facility traces its history back to the original Louisiana Sugar Experiment Station, established in 1885. Here, scientists and agronomists research, develop and test sugar cane varieties and play a vital role in establishing and communicating industry best practices.

Farm work is hard work, and in the fields of Carmouche Planting Company in Belle Rose, we saw sugar cane harvesting go on despite constant rain and seriously muddy fields. A lot of time goes into the planting, growing and harvesting of cane, and converting sugar cane into sugar takes expertise, experience and capital.

Planted in the fall, the resulting cane is harvested toward the end of the following three to five falls from that planting. I rode in the harvester, a giant piece of agricultural machinery similar to a combine, with an eighth-generation farmer. He guided the vehicle through dense rows of cane in what’s essentially a moving processing plant that harvests, cuts, strips, chops and collects cane for its next stop at the sugar factory.

Lula Sugar Factory

Lula Sugar Factory

Located a short drive from the fields, the Lula Sugar Factory was a reminder of the science and technology so integral to this industry. I was guided through the various steps for extracting the sugar from sugar cane, which include purification, clarification, evaporation and crystallization. Each one was its own universe of complexities and tolerances and required constant analysis. Some were measured by scientific standards, some by the eyeballing expertise of 40 years on the job. Receiving cane from seven parishes, Lula and its sister Westfield factory have a combined grinding capacity of 25,000 tons per day.

The last step in the journey from field to table took place at Louisiana Sugar Refining in Gramercy. The enormous refinery, in which raw sugar is processed into refined sugar, is a good example of the vertical integration within the state’s sugar industry. From the state-of-the-art processing floor to the massive sugar shed, which can hold literally tons of sugar (and smells pretty good), it’s an impressive operation. LSR produces two billion pounds of white sugar annually for distribution to commercial and retail customers throughout the U.S. and operates 24 hours per day, seven days per week.

LA Cane Harvesting

While those are big numbers, what’s most important is that more than 800 Louisiana growers, on mostly family-run farms, supply the sugar cane that in turn is refined into sugar. And, at its core, that process is amazingly straightforward. Cane is harvested and chopped, and the sugar juice is pressed out and then purified. After being filtered, the juice is boiled to remove the water, which causes sugar crystals to form. The crystallized sugar is put through a centrifuge and washed. The sugar is further washed, and the remaining amount of naturally occurring molasses determines the type and color of sugar.

Overall, Louisiana produces more than 14 million tons of sugar cane on more than 440,000 acres in 24 parishes. The economic impact to growers and processers in the state is $2.6 billion. Sugar cane is also grown in Florida and Texas. But that’s only one half of the industry, as sugar also comes from sugar beets. In the U.S., 11 states grow sugar beets: California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Wyoming and Washington.

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