SUGARCANE IN LOUISIANA
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Through research it was discovered that the Polynesians were the first to derive sugar from sugarcane plants during the 4th Century AD. Because of its value to people in that part of the world, it’s presence was only shared

 

with India and Persia. The secret remained until 642 AD during an Arab invasion of Persia. As the Arabs continued their invasions into other lands, they brought with them this new crop and established its adoption where climate and soil conditions were favorable.

Sugarcane

The western Europeans discovered sugarcane during the Crusades of the 11th century. They returned to England and its first production took place in 1099. Sugarcane farming spread throughout Europe as trade with the East for more productive varieties continued. This sweet commodity was so rare and popular that sugar was sold in 1319 London at 2 shillings a pound—which would be about $100 per kilo at today’s prices!

In 1493, when Columbus made his second voyage to the Caribbean and the island of Hispaniola (Dominican Republic), he brought with him stalks of sugarcane; and it was here that this important industry was born.

Jesuit priests first brought sugarcane into South Louisiana in 1751. It was planted successfully and has continued to flourish and contribute to Louisiana’s agricultural economy. In 1795, Etienne de Bore made history with the first successful sugarcane enterprise near New Orleans. As additional varieties have been introduced through experimentation, increased yields and resistance to disease and pests have added to sugar’s success.

 

In 1919, a USDA sugarcane research facility located in Florida began experimenting with crossing various strains and four years later a research station was located in Houma, LA to continue the work of improving sugarcane’s development.

Although residential and commercial expansion (especially along the I-10 corridor between Lafayette and New Orleans) has displaced much of the available lands, government subsidies has helped to maintain the profitable nature of the sugar industry. Yields today range from 30-50 tons of cane per acre which converts to 175-225 pounds of sugar from each ton of cane.

As impressive as one might presume, Louisiana’s sugarcane only accounts for a small portion of the sugar consumed in the United States. Sugar beets overtook sugarcane as the primary source of US sugar in 1880; and less than 25% of the sugar grown in the U.S. is actually exported.

Early harvesting of sugarcane in Louisiana was done by hand. Field laborers ranged in age from 12 to 65 years of age. I remember visiting with an elderly woman who described going out into the fields at 14 years of age and coating her bare feet with grease in order to insulate them from cold November day. Today, harvesters are able to cut the cane and separate the leaves from the stalk eliminating the customary burning which took place through the 1990’s.

Sugarcane re-grows from the roots of the harvested crops which greatly reduces the need for replanting. Harvesting usually takes September through November when precipitation is low. Depending upon the resources of the farmer, the harvest usually lasts from 1- 3 months. Once delivered to the mill, the sweet juice is extracted when the cane stalks are crushed in large rollers.

The resulting juice is boiled, evaporating the water residue and yielding a thick syrup. Additional boiling will enable sugar crystals to grow and the entire mixture is then spun in giant centrifuges separating the crystals from the mother liquor. The raw sugar which is brown, is then stored until ready to be refined into white granular sugar or provided in raw form to be used as a supplement to livestock food or sent to an alcohol distillery.

If you live near a sugar mill, you might recall seeing large mounds of the fiber which is known asbagasse. Some of this resulting fiber is used to generate electricity and create steam in running the mill. Surplus bagasse is used in paper products and now in the production of ethanol used in gasoline-ethanol blends (gasahol). Brasil has eliminated the demand for foreign oil because of its ethanol production from sugar cane. Now nearly 100% of Brasil’s automobiles run on ethanol.

Today, the largest producer of sugar from sugarcane is Brazil. Besides Brazil and the U.S., producing countries include India, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Australia . Worldwide sugarcane provides more than six times the amount of sugar produced from the sugar beet.