Tuesday, November 20, 2012

RAISING CANE


St. John's mill during sugarcane grinding seasons
 The smell of smoke and boiling sugar lingers in the air. In Iberia and other parishes of Louisiana, it’s sugar cane grinding season, a season that begins in late September and ends in January. When I was associate editor of Acadiana Lifestyle, our sugar cane issue was published in January, and I learned a lot about sugar cane farming during the five years I wrote articles about this industry.

Recently, Acadiana Lifestyle celebrated its 25th anniversary, and I was asked to write a synopsis of my years with this journal. In one of the paragraphs I talked about the year I was sent to cover a story about a new sugar cane harvester. The assignment proved to be a challenge because on an overcast fall morning, I showed up in open-toed sandals with small heels and felt deep dismay when I was asked to follow the owner of the new machinery into a field near Jeanerette that had seen hard rain for several days. I sank into the ooze up to my ankles and stood for a half hour interviewing the owner and taking notes. When I returned to the Lifestyle office, I threw the ruined shoes in the door and told Art Suberbielle, the publisher, that he owed me a pair of shoes. But he only asked, “Did you get the story?”


Carts loaded with sugarcane
The new machine that I wrote about was called the Louisiana Two-row Green Cane Combine and originated with Walter Landry, then president of Agronomics, International, Inc. Lately, each time I pass a cane field in the parish, I wonder if the machine is currently being used to harvest cane. On that misty morning during grinding season in 1994, the large red harvester moved slowly through a field of cane, and the combine cut stalks of cane into 13-inch billets before extracting leaf from the cane, which was sucked through the extractor to be deposited back on top of the soil. At that time, the machine could cut 75 tons of sugar cane per hour and was put through its paces on the kind of day sugar cane farmers detest. Light rain fell on us as we watched the machine at work, and black mud oozed onto the roads between the sugar cane fields.

The scene was a far cry from the day of cane cutting by hand when slaves cut cane with special knives that resembled a machete with a hook on the end. The slaves had to lop off the top of the stalk, then cut the cane from the roots at the level of the ground. Other workers loaded the stalks on two-wheeled carts to move them to the sugar house or mill. During wet fall seasons, those heavily-loaded carts created a muddy mess on the farm roads.


Acres of cane near New Iberia, LA
The demonstration of the new harvester fascinated me. By extracting the leaf and putting it back into the soil, the machine assured that cane would no longer need to be burned, and organic matter would be returned to enrich the soil. A directional loading device on top of the machine placed cane into a container, which enabled cane to be loaded at any point in the field.

As I watched the huge machine, two other demonstrations began – one of a transport system and fork lift, the brainchild of J. Randolph Roane – and another piece of transport equipment that originated with Agronomics International, Inc. The transport systems were developed to transport billeted and full stalk cane to nearby sugar mills. These harvesting systems were touted to be a boon to the sugar industry as they had been designed for Louisiana conditions and would increase sugar recovery by reducing the need for field burning of cane and improving cane transport (at the time huge carts behind tractors were the major means of transporting sugar cane to the mill).


Crop for next year
Since I have no occasion to trek into the sugar cane fields, I’m curious to know if the harvesters are used today. If burning of cane residue has been reduced, brava! I think I missed the pre-harvest burn, if it occurred, but post-harvest burns are also part of the process yet to come! Right now, there’s still enough dust and smoke in the air to inspire a good case of sneezes, which I’m presently undergoing.
However, far be it from me to complain about an industry that moves about 14 million tons of sugar cane on some of our corduroy roads to Louisiana mills. According to reports from the American Sugar Cane League, the sugar cane industry has an annual impact of $1.1 billion in Louisiana. The industry has moved a long way from the early 1800’s when farmers turned to sugar production following Etienne Bore’s development of a process for making sugar, and Teche country became a major player in the burgeoning industry.





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