Sugarcane's Road from Field To Table

08:25AM Dec 06, 2014
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North Dakota couple wins the Farm Journal VIP trip to Louisiana’s sugarcane country 

I don’t have a big sweet tooth, but I’ll never take sugar for granted after a full-immersion, Southern hospitality trip to sugarcane country in Louisiana this fall. It all started a year ago with my editor’s column invitation for readers to nominate themselves for a VIP trip related to agriculture. 

After the one-row-at-a-time harvest, the cane trailers transporting from the field to the mill are literally turned upside down to dump the tall cane plants, which then start
through a multistage
process that creates golden
raw sugar. 

The winners were Mary and Sam Mondry from Forest River, N.D. As a sugar beet farmer in the Red River Valley, Sam thought it would be fitting to visit sugarcane country and follow the skyscraper, sucrose-loaded plants from harvest to finished product. 

That winning journey took the three of us to the heart of the Sugar Belt in Iberia Parish (that’s southern for Iberia County), about 90 minutes northwest of New Orleans and 30 minutes south of the state capital in Baton Rouge. 

Four steam-powered engines provide the energy for the key grinding steps in the milling process. A byproduct of the process, bagasse (think dried distillers grains), is the fuel behind the steam—allowing the mill to generate half of its own power.

Jim Simon, head of the American Sugar Cane League, graciously lined up a stellar visit built for farm folks. Naturally, the day started in the field. Sugarcane producer Al Landry hosted a great farmer-to-farmer connection. The Plaquemine, La., grower was more than halfway through his 90- to 100-day sugar harvest. Two behemoth John Deere sugar combines cut off the tops of
the tall plants and chop the stalks into 18" billets for transport to the nearby sugar mill.

The VIP trip to sugarcane country for Mary and Sam Mondry, on the right, was hosted by Jim Simon, far left. Next to Jim is Al Landry, Plaquemine, La., sugarcane grower who provided the first stop. 
Grass roots research is critical to keep the Sugar Belt viable. Ken Gravois and the team at the Louisiana State University Sugar Research Station play a key role.

Landry, one of 475 Louisiana sugar-cane farmers, cuts about 50 tons per hour, keeping six dump wagons on the move as a fleet of five trucks transport cane to the mill. 

A team of reliable immigrant workers, employed under H-2A visas, handle the harvest. Many of the men were among the team that helped hand-plant the stubble crop three years ago. Typically, the employees work at Landry’s farm for several months, head home for a visit and then come back to handle fieldwork. By H-2A requirements, workers must be in their home country for two consecutive months per year.

Landry gets compensated by the pounds of sugar produced per acre. The mill—in his case, the Cora Texas Sugar Mill—retains 40% for trucking and processing. An iPad app provides real-time results and benchmarking.

The Cora Texas Sugar Mill, a four-generation family-owned business run by Charlie Schumak, handles cane from 41 farmers. Once at the facility, the cane is processed into fine shimmering gold granular sugar.

From there, we traveled to the Louisiana Sugar Refining facility in Gramercy, La., a plant owned by Cargill and eight of the 11 Louisiana mills. When it leaves the refinery, the sugar is ready for retail.

To watch a video news story about the trip from “This Week in Louisiana Agriculture” and view a slideshow of additional photos, visit