Grinding season: Watch out for sugar cane trucks

Harvest season increases traffic

Sugar-cane trucks begin appearing on south Louisiana roads every fall, as seasonal as football, hauling cane from farmers’ fields to one of the 11 sugar mills in the state.

But on the rural roads they travel, accidents involving other drivers and cane trucks are sometimes part of the harvest season, too.

This month saw two fatalities from two accidents involving sugar cane trucks in the Baton Rouge area:

  • On Dec. 10, a Thibodaux man died on La. 308 in Assumption Parish after his pickup ran into a cane truck turning onto the highway. It was early morning, and the man was traveling at a high rate of speed, State Police reported.
  • On Dec. 17, a Plaquemine man died on La. 1 in Ascension Parish after his car struck the rear of a sugar-cane truck that had slowed in the face of severe fog and another wreck ahead, State Police said.

The wreck was one of three crashes that occurred within minutes on the same stretch of highway that morning and that involved 21 vehicles, four of which were sugar-cane trucks.

“It’s early in the morning, and people are headed to work. It’s just a tragedy to hear about a wreck of that magnitude,” said Kenneth Gravois, sugar-cane specialist with the LSU AgCenter’s Sugar Research Station.

Gravois, who has family working in the sugar-cane business, said, “There’s not much to say, but slow down, turn your lights on and be careful, because your life depends on it.”

Loaded with a regulated limit of 100,000 pounds of sugar cane when they’re headed for the mill, cane trucks are 18-wheelers with some unique attributes.

They’re fitted with a type of trailer that can be rolled on its side or tipped to unload its cane haul at the mill.

And, unlike other 18-wheelers taking the interstate, cane trucks are very often driving small, two-lane “farm-to-market” roads, some that have lots of twists and turns, some that have no shoulders.

The trips the cane trucks make usually aren’t very long, often just a matter of miles from farm to mill, where the cane is ground to get the juice that’s turned into raw sugar.

Grinding season generally runs from October to shortly before New Year’s or into mid-January, depending on the sugar mill.

More than a decade ago, the sugar industry adopted some self-policing measures, such as locking scales at mills at 100,000 pounds — growers don’t get paid for anything over that — so it’s a disincentive to overload trailers, said James Simon, general manager of the American Sugar Cane League, based in Thibodaux.

“It was a safety measure, no question,” Simon said.

Sugar cane, which is a grass, is perishable.

“The cane, once it’s cut, only lasts 24 hours,” said Charlie Schudmak, chief operating officer of the Cora-Texas Manufacturing Co. in White Castle.

The scales at the mills are locked to meet the load limit set by the “perishable product permit” for the sugar-cane trucks that allows them to carry a gross weight of 100,000 pounds, Schudmak said.

That weight is approximately 20 percent to 25 percent heavier than the load of a typical 18-wheeler, he said, so cane trucks can’t brake as fast as other trucks.

Last year was the first year the trailers of cane trucks were required to have a third axle, under state law.

The legislation came about after several years’ of collaboration among the American Sugar Cane League, the state Department of Transportation and Development and the State Police, Simon said.

The mandatory third axle “reduces the impact (of the cane trucks) on the roads, highways and bridges and provides an additional level of stability in handling on the road and braking,” he said.

Drivers of sugar-cane trucks are regulated by the Motor Carrier Safety Division of the Louisiana State Police.

The drivers can drive the trucks with a valid class “E” license, which is a regular driver’s license, but must also have a medical card from a doctor stating they’re in good health, said Trooper Jared Sandifer, with the Public Affairs Section, Troop A.

Sugar mills can ask for further requirements.

At the Lula-Westfield Sugar Factory in Paincourtville, the 77 contract truck drivers who haul cane there are required to have a commercial driver’s license, worker’s compensation and general liability, said Michael Daigle, chief executive officer and president of the American Sugar Cane League.

During the harvest season, he said, the mill grinds 12,000 tons of sugar cane, working in shifts round the clock.

Lula-Westfield gets its sugar cane from about 30 growers in the area. The longest trip for any of its drivers is about 35 miles, Daigle said.

This fall, the American Sugar Cane League promoted driver safety during the harvest season with billboards on highways in sugar cane country.

The league also provided small, movable billboards with the message “It’s Harvest Season, Give Us a Brake” placed in farmers’ fields along well-traveled roads.

Sugar-cane farmers and mills assessed themselves a fee for the campaign, which also included radio spots on Louisiana Radio Network, said Sam Irwin, public relations director of the American Sugar Cane League.

“We want to alert everyone to be as safe as possible, including our drivers and the motoring public,” Irwin said.