SHOWCASING LOUISIANA: Living the sweet life on a sugarcane farm

SHOWCASING LOUISIANA: How does sugarcane get from the field to your table?

ASCENSION PARISH, La. (WAFB) - It’s one of the top crops in Louisiana: sugarcane. It’s all over our part of the south, but do you really know how it gets from the field to your sugar bowl?

Robert Lemann Jr., or “Bubba,” as everybody calls him, runs Palo Alto, Inc. They have about 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish.

Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish.
Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish. (Source: WAFB)

“During the summertime, when this field lays fallow, we will come in and grade it, get it so the rain drains off and build the rows up,” Lemann said.

The row opener is one of the many monster-sized tools Bubba has in his arsenal, but it’s not all about big tractors.

Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish.
Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish. (Source: WAFB)

Bubba says the work is still very hands-on.

“Part of it is control,” Lemann said.

After that, they have to cover all that cane up. And of course, that’s an entirely different tractor.

“You want to get that dirt surrounding the cane. It’s got to have three or four inches of cover on top of it to handle the Louisiana winters,” Lemann said.

Get in its way, and you’ll be buried with the cane.

Planting typically takes place around August. Harvesting happens from October through December.

The Lemann’s plant between 400 and 500 acres every year. They use two massive harvesting combines to gather the crop. Those machines hardly ever stop. The only time they slow down is after they fill up one of the wagons before the next one rolls up.

Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish.
Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish. (Source: WAFB)

It takes some synchronization between the two, or the cane they want would be blown all over the fields.

Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish.
Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish. (Source: WAFB)

From the wagons, they take it to the trucks. It takes about four wagons to fill up one truck, then it’s off to the factory.

In this case, the cane is headed to Lula Westfield just down the road in Paincourtville.

Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish.
Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish. (Source: WAFB)

Chris Mattingly, CEO of Lula Westfield and a fifth-generation worker at the plant, says the plant has been around since the late 1800s, though his family didn’t take over until the turn of the century.

“We’re going to probably grind 900,000 tons total in harvest season here at this plant,” Mattingly said.

Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish.
Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish. (Source: WAFB)

The trucks bring in the cane, dump it, then return to the farm for another load. The cane, meanwhile, makes its way inside the factory. Once inside, it’s a loud journey turning it into two products.

“We make raw sugar and black strap molasses,” Mattingly said.

Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish.
Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish. (Source: WAFB)

After it’s ground up, the cane turns into two byproducts that are split up and spill out towards different parts of the factory. The watery syrup heads one way, while the solids go another.

The molasses is worked down until they get the perfect amount of water, leaving nothing but thick deliciousness. The sugar works its way through process after process until they’re left with perfectly square crystals.

Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish.
Palo Alto, Inc. harvests 2,000 acres of sugarcane in Ascension Parish. (Source: WAFB)

It’s into another truck, this time headed for a refinery in Gramercy.

Louisiana grows sugarcane in parts of 24 parishes and on 439 farms statewide. Nearly 500,000 acres produce more than 15 million tons of cane to be ground down for consumer consumption. That’s a lot. And with Louisiana’s appetite for sugar, there’s no slowing down on the farm or at the factories.

“From January on, we are preparing for the three-month grinding season,” Mattingly said. “It’s 24-7. We can’t afford downtime.”

“Seven days a week, rain, sleet, or snow, and hurricanes, too,” Lemann said.

It’s all to make sure you’re living the sweet life.

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