Mike Comb

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St. Martinville, LA

Louisiana Sugar Cane Cooperative

Type of Operation: Sugar mill

Size of Operation: 1.1 million tons

In Business Since: 1974

Farm Credit Partner: Louisiana Land Bank

Working with Farm Credit Since: 2012

Americans consume almost 80 pounds of sugar each year. More than one million tons of that comes from the Louisiana Sugar Cane Corporation (LaSuCa), a cooperative sugar mill that processes cane supplied by its 40 member-growers.

Turning the sugar cane plant into crystallized sugar is an equipment intensive, labor intensive and organization intensive process, in part due to one critical aspect of the cane: it needs to be processed within 24 hours of being harvested, and harvest lasts just from late September through early January. “We can’t start harvesting earlier because the sugar content isn’t developed,” says Mike Comb, general manager at LaSuCa since 2003 and himself a former grower. “And we have to be finished before any killer freezes that will split the stalk and ruin it in the field.”

This makes for an intense three-month processing season. The mill takes in up to 12,000 tons of cane a day, aiming to have some cane from each of its grower-members every day of the season. “We try to get every farm to start on the first day and finish on the last to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to get their harvest in in time,” he says. Also, since growers are paid based on the amount of sugar content in their cane, and cane harvested earlier has less sugar, this approach gives growers an equitable opportunity for income.

Measuring that sugar content is one step in the milling process, and LaSuCa sample tests 90 – 95% of every load that comes in. The grower is paid based on that measurement along with the number of tons delivered, and at LaSuCa, the growers also receive a liquidation payment at the end of the season. “We weigh the cane coming in and the sugar going out,” says Mike. “We account for every pound of sugar, and we make sure we pay the grower for every pound of sugar they delivered.” As a cooperative, growers also share in the profits LaSuCa earns from the refineries that buy their raw sugar.

Once the cane is received, it’s chopped and pressed to extract the cane juice. The juice is then cooked down to make a syrup, which is crystallized to make the sugar. LaSuCa runs 24/7 when it’s processing, which is demanding work for its employees. “Working in a sugar mill is not easy work,” says Mike. “Some of our employees work 12 hour shifts, and can go 110 days without a day off.”

Technology improvements help make the process more efficient. “We’re able to process more cane with the same amount of equipment, and to extract more sugar from the cane than even 20 years ago,” says Mike. Some of that technology is financed by Louisiana Land Bank, one of LaSuCa’s Farm Credit partners. “Sugar is a unique commodity, and they understand it. They know the industry has good times and bad, and they’ve stuck with us through all of those.”

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