Retired sugarcane farmer Harold Schexnayder Sr, 85, of White Castle, has been a public servant for his country, state, parish and community for a good portion of his life.
After his tour of duty with the Air Force as a captain, Harold left the service and took his father’s place on the sugarcane farm in 1959.
Story by Sam Irwin, American Sugar Cane League Public Relations Director
"Our company was C. Schexnayder and Co. on the old Augusta and Forest Home plantations in Bayou Goula and the Dugas Plantation below Donaldsonville,” Harold said. "I also served on the American Sugar Cane League board and got to be first vice-president but that was so long ago I don’t remember all those years. I got out of the Air Force and came back to White Castle. I took an interest in local politics and ran for city council in 1962. Back then all our city ordinances were hand written. I was on the White Castle City Council for 32 years.”
Even though he doesn’t remember what years he served on the League board, he holds very dear in his memory the work he began in 1988 as the farm manager of the LSU AgCenter Sugarcane Research Farm in St. Gabriel, or as Harold calls it, "across the river.”
"I thoroughly enjoyed those 12 years doing research in sugarcane variety development,” he said. "That was one of the highlights of my career. I loved the idea of creating new varieties. We came up with one, LCP 85-384, and nobody is going to forget that one because that’s when we (the cane industry) brought in the combines (mechanical billet harvesters). From then on, it’s been nothing but progress. St. Gabriel and the USDA farm have come up with some really good varieties. That’s something we didn’t really have back when we started. We had nothing compared to what we have today.”
Harold is long retired from politics, sugarcane farming and variety development, but he provides a different sort of public service for his friends and family. He cooks up Louisiana’s Augusta Road Open Kettle Sugar Cane Syrup every year.
"While I was growing sugarcane and working at St. Gabriel, I developed the hobby of making syrup,” Harold explained. "Ever since then, I’ve been looking for the best variety to make syrup that does really well and has high sugar content.”
His list of requirements for the ideal sugarcane cane syrup variety is extensive. It must boil easily, make a nice color, stand up straight, has high sugar content, is not too thick, mills easily…well, he wants just what every sugarcane farmer and miller wants in a cane…the holy grail cane. He hasn’t found it yet, but he’s come close.
"Over the years I’ve come up with a couple of varieties,” he said. "Like HoCp 00-950 from Houma, that makes excellent syrup. Plus, I went back to the years when I first started to use a variety, CP 44-155, that Cora Texas sugar mill used to stop grinding for raw sugar so they could make syrup.”
It seems odd that a mill would halt raw sugar production to make syrup but there was a reason for it, Harold said.
"That was during the time many years ago when we were on the quota system and a high-grade syrup did not count against the quota,” he explained. "If you grew CP 44-155, they would stop the mill and make syrup. I got few stalks from the USDA farm in Houma and it grows well and makes a beautiful syrup. So that’s where I am today.”
Harold, with assistance from his sons, nephews and sons-in-law, plant a fraction of an acre of cane and make several batches of syrup each season. To ensure a top-quality milling cane stalk, they hand cut the cane and tops it low.
"We run a few checks on it in October with a hand-held refractometer and if the Brix (sugar content) is in the 20s, we’re really satisfied,” Harold said. "Last year it was really great, and the sugar content is high again this year.”
Harold is an inquisitive person and enjoys studying and theorizing about cane syrup production. Plus, his many contacts in the sugarcane industry are a constant source of information. Paired with his vast knowledge about sugarcane, he doesn’t go wrong when he makes syrup.
"I always like the opportunity to talk to the chemist at Cora Texas,” Harold said. "That man has been there for 30 years or more. He said, ‘Harold, don’t ever squeeze that cane too tight. You don’t want to get anything in that juice except what you want. For high quality juice, don’t squeeze it too tight. The quality of your juice will be the best and it will make it a whole lot easier to process. You won’t have to do so much skimming’.”
Here’s how Harold said to avoid ‘squeezing the cane too tight’: "You leave a bit of space between the rollers on the mill,” he said. "You want a quality juice, and naturally, you end up with a high-quality syrup. And that’s what I’ve been doing over the years.”
Many open kettle cane syrups form sugar crystals at the bottom of the container after it sits on the shelf for a while. Harold’s is crystal free. That fact was interesting to the late Dr. Ben Legendre, a top sugarcane researcher.
"I’d give Dr. (Ben) Legendre some syrup from my operation and he always commented, ‘Harold, I don’t understand. You gave me this syrup and I don’t see it crystallized on the bottom’. I told him I didn’t know why. Most people who cook syrup, over a period of time, either in the refrigerator or on the shelf, sugar crystals start forming in the syrup.”
Harold believes the secret is in his process. As he explained to Dr. Ben, "After we make it in the kettle, we put it in a container and then into some gallon jars and let the syrup sit there for a week or so. All the impurities settle out and go to the bottom. Then we’d ladle the syrup off the top of that and get it out of those gallon jars and don’t ever let that sediment get back in suspension. Then we’d put it in a big pot on my stove and we’d go through the process again and re-boil it. Once we get it up to a boil, we take it and put it in our small jars.”
That was key according to Dr. Ben, Harold said.
"Dr. Legendre seemed to think letting it settle and re-boiling it, then putting it in our jars helped prevent crystallization. Dr. Legendre tried to explain to me why that worked, but that’s our process and we’re still doing it.
Harold confessed that the reason for the re-boil was to pour it in hot in his jars.
"We didn’t know anything about it (the process),” he said. "The only reason we were doing it that way is we thought it made the bottles sterile even though you buy them that way and they’re supposed to be sterile. But I always run mine through the dishwasher. My wife used to fuss about that, but any way I thought it just made the whole process more sterile. But Dr. Legendre thought it had to do with the second boil and removing the sediment through settling. I never did quite understand what Dr. Legendre said about that.”
Harold reminisced about the cane syrup available when he was a child and the sugar crystals at the bottom of the can were an extra candy treat for the kids.
"For me, all I remember as a kid coming up, we’d get our syrup from the mill in Bayou Goulas called Tallyho,” he said. "They’d always give us syrup in cans, a gallon can we’d get. It was pretty syrup and a good syrup. On the farm, we put syrup on just about everything we had, and we were always anxious to get to the bottom of the cans because there were always some beautiful crystals of sugar. It was just like candy.”
"We used to sort of grow the crystals (during our cooking process) and whenever I saw the crystals growing in there, I’d put some more syrup in there to grow the crystals to give to the kids as a candy, but we started our second boil process and lost our order for making sugar crystals.”
Harold’s Augusta Road cane syrup is available for friends and family. His family’s old sugarcane company still manages land and has a lot of stockholders, so all of those folks are first in line. But a few cases of the Augusta Road syrup makes it to the Alma Plantation company store and to be sold.
This year’s cane crop is very promising and should make an excellent syrup, Harold said.
"I’m feeling confident that our sugar content is just as good as last year,” Harold said. "With this cool snap, I feel confident the sugar content will be up a little more. When the sugar content is up, you don’t have to boil very long, usually a couple, three hours and the boiling process will be over.
So if you like cane syrup, you’d be wise to make friends with Mr. Harold. His cane syrup is hard to beat.
Photo bonus: check out the syrup making process
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RECIPES FROM THE CANE BELT
Augusta Road Pecan Pie
Ingredients: 1/4 cup butter or margarine
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup pecans
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 1/2 cups Augusta Road Sugar Cane Syrup
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup sugar
Unbaked pastry for 1 medium sized pie
Melt the butter, add flour and cornstarch and stir until smooth. Then add syrup and sugar and boil 3 minutes. Cool. Add beaten eggs, nuts and vanilla, blending well. Pour into pan lined with unbaked pastry. Bake in hot oven at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce to 350 degrees and bake 30 to 35 minutes.