Changing with the Times
Lafourche Sugars, the sugarcane mill in Thibodaux, represents the changing nature of Louisiana’s 224-year old sugarcane industry.
Many folks in the industry are the latest in a long line of sugarcane growers and millers, but modern agriculture, however, is driven by advances in science and technology. Sugarcane finds it must compete with newer technical industries for the top homegrown talent to manage the mechanics and science of the mill and the field.
Story and pictures by Sam Irwin
Ben LeBlanc, the manager of Lafourche Sugar, is the representation of a new breed of sugar millers. He said he was attracted to sugarcane industry, not because it was in his blood (his father was a pharmacist and his mom was a schoolteacher), but simply because there was a cane field in the backyard at his boyhood home in Raceland.
"As a young kid, I was very interested in the sugarcane growing behind the house,” Ben said. "But what I enjoyed the most was harvesting. I loved watching the farmers harvest and I picked up pieces of cane that fell off the wagon in the road. I could hold it and feel it and chew it. Then a family friend arranged for us to tour through the Raceland mill and that piqued my interest even more.”
It would seem natural that he inherited his scientific mind from his father, and while still in high school, he met well-known crop consultant Calvin Viator. When Ben started at Louisiana State University, Calvin gave him a part-time job as a field scout. Ben was graduated in 1995 with a degree in agronomy and worked in the ag consultancy field for 20 years before he was brought on at Lafourche Sugars in 2014.
Until Ben, there had only been three general managers of Lafourche: Irving Legendre Sr., Irving Legendre Jr. and Greg Nolan. Those three men were the quintessential definition of having "sugarcane in the blood.”
The bloodline of Lafourche Sugar, like Ben’s sugar bloodline, is relatively new. The mill sits on the grounds of the old Leighton Sugar Mill at 141 Leighton Quarters Road in Thibodaux. The Leighton mill was a casualty of the cane disease that plagued the industry in the 1910s and was closed in 1923. The industry rallied after the American Sugar Cane League was formed and new cane varieties were brought in. The rejuvenated industry created an opportunity in 1937 for Oscar Mire and Harvey Peltier to buy the Leighton mill and they called their new venture Lafourche Sugars. The Mire and Peltier families are still the principal owners and a nine-member board of directors makes the business decisions.
Photo (right): Ben Leblanc
However, finding qualified homegrown people who come up through the ranks in the sugarcane business is getting to be more and more difficult. Even though the sugarcane industry is making more sugar than ever before and expanding, the pool of qualified folks with scientific, mechanical and machining backgrounds who have sugarcane in the blood is getting smaller.
Fortunately, the Louisiana sugarcane industry has programs to train the next generations of cane specialists. Ben is a prime example. He learned the "ins and outs” of growing sugarcane from Calvin Viator and Paul Templet during his time as a crop consultant but once he got hired by Lafourche to serve as their field manager, he needed to get up to speed on how the sugar mill worked.
"The field manager is the point of contact between the farmers and mills,” Ben explained. "He keeps tabs on what’s going on in the fields and he’s responsible for setting the daily quotas for mill delivery. Most importantly, you have to manage everything so every farmer finishes the harvest at the same time. I was hired with the knowledge that Greg would be considering retirement in the not-too-distant future and I would be considered for the position. It was up to me to learn as much as possible from Greg and others in the industry to make to make it a reality.”
Ben took the raw sugar and refining course offered at Nicholls State University and the boiler and chemist course at Audubon Sugar Institute, plus he got the benefit of Greg Nolan’s on-the-job training.
"Greg brought me through the factory, and I gained the necessary knowledge and hands-on experience,” Ben said.
But the mill is only as good as its parts, and sugar boilers, evaporator operators and factory managers are as difficult to find as general managers. It’s also natural for a Louisiana sugarcane mill to always be on the lookout for good welders, instrumentation people and manual machinists.
"I rely on the expertise of the factory manager and our supervisors,” Ben said. "Long time factory manager Duane Legendre left and before Duane, it was his dad. We brought in Deodat Ompertab who has a wealth of experience from overseeing eight mills in Guyana. I feel confident that I get good information from our staff. We come up with several plans of action and we go over it together to see what fits best with our budget.”
Photo (above): A view of the cane yard from inside the factory.
2018 was Ben’s first year as the sole mill manager. It was a good year: the mill ground 1,070,000 tons of cane and produced 231 million pounds of sugar. Both numbers were the second-best ever in the mill’s history.
"We would have set a new record if we had had one more day of grinding,” Ben said.
The future for Lafourche Sugars is efficiency, Ben said.
"Right now, we’re focusing more on efficiency than enlargement,” he said. "We believe our capacity is sufficient. We’re doing work in our boiler room to increase the efficiency of our steam and that should also help us on the pan floor which should help us be a little quicker in boiling the sugar. We’re also looking to increase our automation and improving the automation we have now.
"Last year, we ran very well despite the wet conditions which affected the growers in the field significantly. The problem we saw, with field conditions as they were, that it was difficult for the growers to get cane to us in sufficient quantities, so we ran at a lower capacity for a good part of the year based on deliveries. What we’re trying to do is get the crop in in a short period of time and not put our growers at risk with a long harvest. More time in the field is more expense for the growers and we want to reduce that time by being more efficient at a steady rate.”
Currently, sugar prices are stable and the industry is healthy and expanding. More than 575,000 acres are in sugarcane cultivation and 460,000 acres are expected to be harvested for the 2019 crop cycle. Lafourche Sugars’ goal is to process their share of that 460,000 efficiently. With a little bit of luck, they might have their best year ever.