Global Market, Good Weather Benefit La. Sugar

Jan 31, 2012

Louisiana sugar farmers are having a good year. The yield is up, and so are prices.

Louisiana sugar farmers are averaging 34 cents per pound of raw sugar. Michael Daigle, CEO of the Lula Westfield Sugar Factory, says the state produced about 1.4 million tons of raw sugar this season, right on track with last year. Daigle says the raw price hadn't gone above 21 cents for the past 25 years, and now, "due to the world shortage of sugar, the domestic price has gone up."

Third generation sugar farmer, Danny Landrieu, drives a sugar combine in Paincourtville for Lula-Westfield. The $350,000 machine is state of the art, and with it Landrieu cuts about 10 to 15 acres per day when the harvest is good. "I've always got to worry - Mother Nature may mess it up - you never know what she's going to dish out." Sugar Specialist with the LSU AgCenter, Kenneth Gravois, says despite a curveball thrown by Mother Nature this year, the farmers are seeing a good harvest. Though it was particularly dry, heavy rain in July created good conditions for a quality crop. Gravois says, "All year long we've been very dry and with that people have been wondering what kind of harvest we'd have, but our sugar recoveries have been surprisingly high."

Louisiana farmers got more sugar out of their cane - 230 pounds per ton, which is four more pounds per ton than last year. Jim Simon, General Manager of the American Sugar Cane League, says the current harvest is one of the best ever. "This year's crop in Louisiana, the pure cash value, or what we call ‘the farmgate' is going to be over $900 million. That's pure cash that's driven down into what we call the ‘sugar economy.'"

Lula Westfield is one of only 11 sugar mills in the state responsible for processing all the sugar produced in Louisiana each year. Factory Manager, Stephen Savoie says the mill employs about 100 people for the 90 day harvest, and it's a big job. "Everybody's surprised; they don't realize how much it takes - from what's growing out in the field to what goes into the factory - to what comes out of the factory to make sugar."

They wash, shred, crush and squeeze the cane to extract the raw juice and then boil it down in evaporators. The entire mill smells like hot molasses. In the break room, the hot coffee and creamers sit on a table with an array of packaged sweeteners. When asked where they got their sugar from, they replied that they bought it at the store. That may seem surprising when they have entire sheds full of tons of the stuff, but Lula-Westfield and the other mills in the state produce raw sugar, which isn't like the white stuff you'll find at the grocery store. In order to get that, the sugar has to be sold in its unrefined state to a company that can refine it.

Danny Landrieu drives a sugar combine in Paincourtville. (Tegan Wendland/WRKF)

CEO Michael Daigle says farmers could soon be making more money by refining it themselves because there is a 10 to 15 percent price difference between raw sugar and white sugar. Eight mills and their farmers have partnered with Cargill and Emperial to build a new cooperatively-owned refinery in Gramercy, which opened its doors last season. Daigle says, "That gives growers, right now, the opportunity to own from the farm to the store shelf."

Meanwhile, Danny Landrieu will continue cutting the cane for Lula-Westfield down in Paincourtville. He says he loves the work, "When the price is right," and the price has been right this year.