The relationship between farmers and millers most likely pre-dates recorded history. Agricultural activities began to take place in the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia more than 10,000 years ago.
Over time, farmers and millers understood their relationship was symbiotic. You can’t have one without the other.
By Jim Simon
More than 200 years ago, Louisiana’s sugarcane industry was established and immediately began a profitable evolution. Most plantations had their own mills to grind cane and facilities to cook the juice into raw sugar, but the Industrial Revolution changed all that. In 1829, when Simeon Patout built the Enterprise Mill in Iberia Parish, it was the first mill in Louisiana to be equipped with steam power.
Over the next 90 years, Louisiana’s sugarcane history is one of growth and consolidation. As farms grew larger, better equipment was needed to harvest cane. With the introduction of the cane billet harvester to the cane belt in the 1990s, a single farming operation learned it could easily harvest 1,500 acres. Today, it’s not uncommon for a farmer to have more than 3,000 acres to grow cane.
While those innovations to field operations were taking place, sugar mills were also expanding to handle the increased cane supply. Over the last 40 years, Louisiana’s sugarcane industry has nearly tripled its production capacity. In 1976, the industry made 644,800 tons of raw sugar. In 2018, our mills processed more than 16 million tons of sugarcane into 1.8 million tons of raw sugar. None of that would have been possible if our sugarcane mills had not been progressive, efficient and managed well.
How effective have we been? Let’s measure in acreage. For the 2019 crop year, we have about 575,000 acres in sugarcane and expect to harvest 460,000. In 1976, we harvested 328,000 acres. The 2019 crop will most likely be our largest crop since the year 2000.
What’s pushing the expanded acreage? The sugarcane business has been stable for the past few years while other commodities have suffered, thereby pushing farmers to increase cane production. Mills, working to continuously improve operations, are creating new opportunities by offering planting, harvesting and trucking services. This allows the farmer to concentrate on growing the best crop possible, expand acreage and better manage expenses and risk.
In turn, mills are increasing their capacity to grind cane. All the mills are grinding a million tons or more each season and a few are in the two million tons or more capacity. The industry average for the state’s 11 mills in 2018 was 1.5 million tons.
Sugarcane mills are also looking at other ways to improve. All mills generate their own steam power by burning bagasse (the residue of the cane stalk) and most use excess steam to generate power for internal usage. Another mill is exploring technology to compress bagasse into fuel pellets for sale in the energy market while another is looking to extract xylitol from bagasse. Xylitol is a sweetener used in mouthwash and chewing gum products. Mill management is always searching for technologies to improve sugar recovery and purity.
Louisiana’s mills are either privately owned or owned by co-operatives. Even though we have fewer mill than we had 100, 50 or even 30 years ago, we are grinding more cane and making more sugar than ever. That’s because the leaders of the Louisiana sugarcane industry know how to cooperate, adapt and make the proper decisions necessary to sustain the industry profitably. In short, the mills are constantly seeking out new technologies that ultimately benefit the farmers and the farmers are seeking out efficiencies that ultimately benefit the mills.
No doubt this healthy relationship will be continued, so there’s every reason to believe the sugarcane industry will prosper in its third century of existence in the Bayou State.
Jim Simon is the manager of the American Sugar Cane League, the trade group representing the Louisiana sugarcane industry.