I live in the heart of sugar cane country. I am literally surrounded by cane fields. From my front porch, I have a view of oak trees and cane fields and in the summer, you can indeed hear it grow (the cane, that is). Our world has changed so much over the past decades that more and more people don’t quite realize exactly where their food comes from. Well, I can tell you a bit about sugar.
Right now it’s harvest time in south Louisiana. We actually have a relatively short growing season – cane is planted in the late summer of one year and harvested in the fall of the next. Most sugar consumed (sugar, not corn syrup or other sweeteners) comes from sugar cane (about 20% comes from sugar beets), which is actually a grass. A grass that can grow really, really tall.
Sugar cane in mid-summer. Tall, but still with some growing to do.
In some growing areas of the world where the cane has a longer season, it flowers. Wow! Not in south Louisiana as the cane must be harvested before it freezes. Harvest time, or “grinding,” starts around the beginning of September.
Harvested cane in carts await unloading at M. A. Patout sugar mill in Patoutville, LA.
Cane is cut, loaded into carts or large (18-wheeler) trucks, and brought to the mill. In years past, the cane would be burned after cutting and before loading in order to remove the leaves. Fortunately, newer harvesting techniques results in “billet” cane which is chopped shorter during the harvesting process – eliminating most (but not all) of the need for burning the cane. It may be a pretty sight, but it does put a lot of smoke and soot into the air.
Burning fields at dusk between Lydia and Patoutville, LA
Anyone driving on a two lane highway in south or central Louisiana knows to “watch out for the cane trucks!” because they do tend to move more slowly than regular traffic. A pet peeve of mine is the folks who zoom around them recklessly or who complain about the trucks. What, you’re late for work? You should know better this time of year, and the person driving the truck is at work already.
Sterling Sugars in Franklin, LA
Sugar mills are where the cane is crushed, juice is extracted, then boiled down to yield sugar crystals (and molasses). Sounds simple? Well…the idea is simple, but sugarmaking is as much of an art as it is a science. But first things first. Cut the cane, load it, haul it to the mill and unload it there.
A truck filled with cane arrives at Cajun Sugar Co-op, New Iberia, LA
Methods of unloading cane are pretty impressive.
At Cajun Sugar, the truck body is lifted to dump the cane.
Sometimes the entire truck is lifted!
At Sterling Sugars in Franklin, LA, it’s a similar process.
But wait…I’m getting out of order a bit. When the trucks arrive at the mill, they are weighed (they are weighed again after the cane is dumped). A “core sample” is taken at that time as well. Think giant hypodermic needle and you get the concept.
The core sampler at Cajun Sugar.
The sample goes directly to the core lab where it will be analyzed for sugar content. Samples are tracked by barcode, and the load-specific barcode is generated when the sample gets to the core lab. That info is tracked in the mill’s database so that each farmer can be paid properly. Pretty neat, huh? (I remember my grandfather at the mill, counting his truck arrivals – a common thing back then.)
Once the core sample is taken, the trucks are unloaded and the cane is stacked up in a massive yard. From there it is transported into the mill for grinding.
Not quite a “big ol’ rock candy mountain,” but a mountain of sugar cane.
The cane is chopped more before going into the mill.
Between the cane yard and the actual mill.
On the way into the mill, the cane will be on a conveyer belt and “make a pass” under some giant magnets. A stray piece of metal can mess up the mill, and possibly harm a mill employee.
Generally speaking, the cane will be chopped, smushed, macerated, and more or less rendered into mush/goo/yucky looking stuff and the juice extracted. Hence the term “grinding!”
But how does the juice from this overgrown grass become sugar? Ahh, that’s the next segment of this series, as I’m now going to have a cup of coffee sweetened with raw sugar. Stay tuned!
Note – all photos © B. D. Lowry; all rights reserved. Please contact me for use.