Sugar harvest begins; co-op getting busy

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 4, 2000

DANIEL TYLER GOODEN / L’Observateur / October 4, 2000

ST JAMES – Most of the year the St. James Sugar Cooperative sugar mill inSt. James sits dormant, watching the sugar cane grow. But now and for thenext 90 days or so one can see the tell-tale steam pouring out from its bowels. The mill has again awakened, its insides grinding and working thesugarcane into raw sugar, the golden crop of south Louisiana.

On Oct. 25 the mill first began to receive the cane. Around 30 farmers in St.James Parish and the surrounding area bring their crop to the refinery for sale. Though the weather has been unusually hot and dry over the summer,the sugarcane didn’t do as poorly as expected. A 10 percent drop in caneproduction per acre was expected, but it hasn’t been that bad, said Lenny Waguespack, general manager of the mill.

Waguespack estimates that in the three months of milling they will work 610,000 to 615,000 tons of sugarcane. That is a drop from last year’samount, 630,000 tons, which was their best year ever, said Waguespack.

The mill itself is grinding better than ever before, added Waguespack. Nearly7,000 tons of cane a day are running through the mill. The efficiency of themill is also improved since last year. With new strains of sugar cane growingthicker the bagasse, or left over cane fiber, has in the past begun to pile up with no use for the mill. This year the mill has been redesigned to incorporatethe bagasse in the system.

“We’re now burning all the bagasse, which is good considering the price of gas is so high now,” said Waguespack.

Hopefully, an average of 7,000 tons a day will run through the mill. If so thatcould mean a large amount of savings in the long run, said Waguespack. Themore they can produce in less time the better since the mill only makes money three months out of the year during harvesting time.

Much of the efficiency, and the good leg the mill’s gotten off on this year, goes to the workers and the chief engineer Detler Schlorke. Schlorke, withthe mill for three seasons, is originally from South Africa.

“He brought a lot of organization, planning and thorough follow-ups into the process,” said Waguespack.

In his office Schlorke has a large tablet of paper standing in the middle of the room. In small neatly drawn letters, daily observations of maintenancerepairs, cleaning or other concerns are written out. Schlorke meets with theteam leaders in each area of the mill and discusses and follows up on daily problems or improvements that need to be made. The efficiency in the planthas greatly improved with the hiring of Schlorke.

“The mill now has better controls. He’s also put uniformity into our systems.Everything now runs better together,” said Waguespack.

With the prices of sugar dropping over the last few years, efficiency in every operation is a large concern for Waguespack.

About $30,000 to $35,000 a day can be spent on transportation of cane.

Waguespack is looking to work more in cooperation with other local mills to help conserve costs. Already St. James Co-op samples the incoming cane forboth Glenwood in Napoleonville and Calwell in Thibodaux. Waguespack hopesthey can continue to work together, setting a common price for each year’s crop and sharing their member farmers. With some farmers living closer toanother mill than the one they deliver to, transportation costs could drop if they share with each other. Already the mills send loads of cane to eachother if they’ve got more than they can process that day.

Another way of conserving costs is in rewarding the farmers for clean crops. Much of the process in milling the sugar cane is devoted to cleaningthe mud, fiber and debris from the cane juice. This year, St. JamesCooperative is monitoring the quality of each load brought in. In the futurethey may be able to pay more for a cleaner crop, which has been better maintained in the field.

Another improvement for the mill is scheduled hauling, said Waguespack. Inthe past farmers have brought the cane, which is stacked until it can be feed into the mill. With moving, stacking and crushing, up to 6 pounds per ton or$300 worth of sugar a day can be lost. In the past 35 percent would movefrom the truck directly into the mill, while 65 percent was stacked to wait for processing. With the scheduled hauling, and farmers coming insynchronized times, 65 percent could be put directly into the mill,” said Waguespack.

The mill itself is a fascinating work place. The smell of hot sugar floods therooms as it moves from inside the cane to molasses to crystallized sugar.

Outside the cane is dumped onto a conveyer belt where it is washed clean of as much dirt and debris possible. The belt carries it through a series ofknives and shredders that work the cane down to a pulp. Five crusherssmash and resoak the cane pulp, working the sugar out much like one would work soap out of a sponge. This part of the process gets around 92-93percent of the sugar out.

Since there is still dirt and other impurities in the sugar and water, lime is added and the water is heated to help separate the impurities. After theimpurities settle the sugary water is ran through a filter. The large machinepulls the sugar from any residue left in the water. At the end of the filteringprocess, the mud and debris is scraped off the outside of the filters, while the sugar continues on to the evaporators.

In the evaporators most of the water is extracted from the sugar, leaving a dark syrup. Mixed with a starter batch of sugar seed crystals, the syrup isheated and begins to crystalize in vacuum pans. The sugar is then spun at ahigh rate of speed, four times overall, to centrifically pull the molasses out of the crystal. The result out of the centrifuge is the light brown raw sugarexported by the St. James Cooperative.The sugar is dried as it is stored in the warehouses. The smaller one holdsonly 15 tons, while the large warehouse can fit 45 tons of raw sugar. To fillthe warehouses, a large scale weights out 2,000 pounds of sugar and drops it onto one last conveyor belt. The belt fires the sugar into the air, and as itscrapes the bottom of the ceiling a hundred yards away it drys out in flight and piles nicely in a corner.

The whole process takes a keen eye and careful attention. With very preciseenvironments needed for the creation of the sugar crystals, Waguespack says some of his employees have devoted their lives, as their fathers before, to making sugar crystals. The increase in efficiency and productionover the last few years has been good. Waguespack sees a lot of that due tothe workers involved as well as the farmers. All his members, as well ashimself, have recently been certified for field burning by the state. Burningthe fields decreases the amount of bagasse in the processing. The certifiedfarmers have been taught various guidelines to keep smoke pollution and inconvenience to the public to a minimum.

Return To News Stories