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Hymels have seen ups, downs in years of sugar cane production

LEONARD GRAY / L’Observateur / October 2, 1998

RESERVE – Sugar cane has been Peter Hymel’s life for all of his 66 years.

Though it has its ups and downs, as with any farmer, it’s a livelihood which occupies him year-round.

The recent bad weather generated by tropical storms which pounded the River Parishes during September damaged his crops, which includes1,000 acres in St. John the Baptist Parish and 600 acres in St. James Parish.Nevertheless, there’s always next year.

“We came out of a drought into a hurricane,” noted Peter’s brother, George “Scrap” Hymel, 60. “Last year, we had one of our better years.”Neither Hymel would speculate about this year’s crop, harvesting of which will start Oct. 7.In St. John Parish during 1997, there were 19 producers of sugar andmolasses, with 8,745 acres under cultivation, producing 28,683.6 tons. InSt. James Parish, there were 38 sugar producers, with 25,905 acres undercultivation, producing 78,854.8 tons.The Hymels, under the name of Uncle Sam Planting Company of Convent, are one of the largest sugar producers in the River Parishes, according to St. James County agent Jimmy Garrett. It was founded by “Captain” MoseHymel and his family.

Last year, the company generated 52,000 tons of sugar and are harvesting 200 more acres this year than last.

However, he’s also held little hope for this year’s sugar crop. “A lot ofcane has gone down now, flat. Standing water will affect planting andthere will be problems with the harvest in getting a good job done.”Peter Hymel agreed, and noted: “It’s been terrible. It blew all the canedown, and the water can’t get out.”Sugar cane, cultivated in Louisiana since 1751, is grown in 23 Louisiana parishes, including all the River Parishes.

Planting takes place in late August and early September, using whole stalks of cane rather than seed. Each stalk consists of several joints, eachof which produces a bud. The buds produce shoots of cane.In January, herbicides are used to control grass in the cane fields and fertilizer is added from March until May. Harvesting begins in earlyOctober and continues non-stop, usually 75 to 80 days.

“There’s no weekends, no vacations during harvesting,” Peter Hymel said.

Kerry “Kaya” Hymel, Peter’s 41-year-old son added wryly, “You’ve got to give two weeks’ notice before you die.”Harvesting nowadays is done with combines, tall machines which slice off the cane tops, cut the stalks, chop them into smaller pieces and deposits them into a large screened wagon. Commonly, then, the field trash isburned off in smoky fires.

At the sugar mills (Uncle Sam Company takes theirs to the Lula Westfield refinery in Belle Rose), the cane stalks are washed and crushed for their juice, again and again, to wring out every possible bit.

The juice is boiled down to a thick syrup and the remains of the stalk, now called “bagasse,” is used for a number of purposes, from fuel to paper.

At St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Convent, a massive anddetailed re-creation of the Lourdes Grotto was built more than a century ago, using bagasse as the basic building material.

The thick syrup is separated into dark brown raw sugar and molasses. Theraw sugar is then sold to refiners, who remove the remaining impurities and color and produce white, or “refined” sugar.

The future of sugar cane depends upon many factors, from political to economic. One of the largest factors for the future of sugar farming, as inmost farming, is the availability of cultivatable land.

Scrap Hymel commented, “I don’t know about the future, because we keep losing land to new development. It just keeps getting harder and harder.”However, the coming generation of Hymels will keep Uncle Sam going for years to come. Besides Kaya, his brothers, Ricky and Mickey, and cousin,Mike, are all involved in making sure there will always be sugar cane in the River Parishes.