January, 2012. Louisiana Sugarcane – How Sweet It Is – Or Isn’t

Posted on January 21, 2012


When Jesuit priests brought sugarcane plants into south Louisiana in 1751, little did they know the giant grass would eventually get tangled up in politics and social issues.

They probably just thought it tasted good.

However, there’s been both a sweet side and a sour side to the sugar industry in America.

While America was still a British colony, sugar was referred to as “White Gold”. The potential value of this “White Gold” was one the prime motivators for the slave trade that brought millions of Africans to both North and South America.

The history of every nation in the Caribbean, much of South America, and parts of the southern United States were all shaped by sugar plantations established by British colonists intent on ever-increasing production of the very lucrative “White Gold”.

Some historians even theorize the American Revolution might not have been successful if the British military hadn’t been so preoccupied with protecting their far-flung sugar holdings.

That may be a bit of a stretch.

However,from tariffs on imported sugar during the War of 1812 aimed at protecting American sugarcane producers, to the agricultural price support policies of today, sugar and politics have often been stirred up together to make a bitter brew.

But enough of politics.  Just pass the sugar!

Sugar is the only food – loosely defined – I can think of that can be derived from two entirely different plant sources. Sugar can come from sugar beets – a root crop – grown in northern states, or sugarcane – a grass – grown commercially in Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Hawaii.

Though purists will say otherwise, whatever the source, sugar is pretty much sugar.

And we love it. And we love to hate it. Reviled as “empty calories” and blamed as a major contributor to a host of health issues, it’s hard to avoid, and hard to do without.

But from root or stalk, according to statistics, the average American consumes well over 100 pounds of sugar a year.

And Louisiana is right there making sure we all get our due.  The state’s climate is perfect for this sub-tropical crop that needs lots of sun and lots of water.

On a trip to Abbeville, in Vermillion Parish, we drove through miles and miles of sugarcane fields. Cane in this area is planted from August through September by sticking stalks in the ground that “tiller” and spread. Since sugarcane is actually a giant grass, several crops can be harvested before it needs to be replanted.

Sugarcane is harvested mechanically by combine-type equipment that cut the stalks off at ground level, strips off the leaves, chops the stalks into uniform pieces, deposits the pieces in a transporter, and blows the trash back onto the field.

During this time of year the cane is short and brown. The last harvest was sometime between October and December, then the plants recovered a bit before cold weather turned them brown.

Now, as the weather has become unusually warm, you can already see faint tinges of green in fields with larger plants.

Whether it’s good or bad for you, sugarcane is good business in Louisiana, contributing approximately $2 billion to the state’s economy annually.

And that’s a pretty sweet deal.