Last, sweet days of grinding season

Editor’s note: The author of this week’s column grew up on a sugar-cane farm in White Castle, and, as a staffer for the state Department of Agriculture, still heads to the fields in Alma each year during grinding season. Here’s his take on the Louisiana’s “white” Christmas.

The sugar-cane harvest in Louisiana is unique. The local call it “grinding” season. It starts in late September and runs 24/7 until January.

From start to finish, the season is only about 100 days, but, in the end, always sugar white and sweet.

Every year about 400,000 acres of cane are grown on Louisiana farms. If you crunch the numbers, that means 4,000 acres of cane must be cut, loaded, hauled, unloaded and ground (shredded and milled), and then processed into sugar — every one of those 100 or so days.

Amazingly, at the start of every day, 4,000 acres of cane are literally still in the fields, and, 24 hours later, the cane has been turned into mountains of white sugar stored in huge warehouses all around south Louisiana.

Those 4,000 acres yield about 140,000 tons of cane stalks every day of grinding.

The cane stalks are harvested from the fields with one-row combines. That’s right, the combines cut one row at a time.

The stalks are hauled from the field in carts or truck trailers to the mills. To move that much cane requires about 5,000 loads every day of grinding season.

There are 11 sugar mills in south Louisiana, so more than 450 loads of cane are delivered to each mill each day. Each load is weighed at a mill and sampled to see how much sugar is in the cane.

The mills shred the cane, which is then squeezed and pressed between rolling mills to remove as much juice as possible. The pressure is so strong that the resulting cane fiber (bagasse) is dry enough to burn. In fact, most of the bagasse is burned to make steam, which turns the rolling mills and generates electricity for the mills during grinding. It’s that steam — which many people mistakenly think is smoke — you see rising from the mills.

The sweet juice squeezed from the cane is about 80 percent water. So the mills must first boil off the water to turn the cane juice into thick, sweet syrup.

That sweet syrup is crystallized to form sugar crystals. The syrup is boiled again and again to produce as much sugar as possible.

In the end, the thick syrup — molasses — and the sugar crystals are separated. Out one pipe goes the molasses, which is thick, but not very sweet, and out a conveyor goes the sugar.

By the end of grinding season, the mountains of sugar — almost 3 billion pounds — are sent to warehouses.

“White” Christmases in Louisiana are few and far between. You are more likely to find families playing in their shorts on Christmas Day than in snow. But for Louisiana farmers, almost every grinding season includes a “white” Christmas — sugar white. Those farmers know that the green waves of cane in their fields today will be white mountains of sugar tomorrow.

The days of grinding are wet and muddy or dry and dusty and hot or cold. Every day and every year is different. But what remains the same is every grinding season makes for a Louisiana holiday season that is white and sweet.

And the cane farmers know that every year the sweetest cane row is always the last one cut, and the sweetest cane load is always the last one hauled.

And one of the sweetest days of the grinding season is always the last one.

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