Racing the Clock for a Sweet Future

Processing sugar cane crop can be painstaking, but the results are always sweet. Each year for approximately 100 days, Louisiana-based St. Mary Sugar Cooperative and its members work around the clock—oftentimes through rain, sleet and even hurricanes—to process the crop before the ground freezes. But with a new expansion on the horizon, the co-op is hopeful to increase efficiency—buying back valuable time.

St. Mary was founded in 1946 and is one of only two remaining sugar cooperatives in the state. Each fall, it receives truckloads of sugar cane from its 104 members and then processes it into black molasses or sugar by grinding, pressing and boiling the cane. Once it is boiled and then crystallized, the sugar is ready—but the process isn’t over. The leftover bagasse, which is the pulpy, woody fiber left after the extraction, is used to fire the steam boilers and generates power for the plant.

We are grateful to CoBank for facilitating the loan—we have been with the bank for several decades, and they have been an incredible resource.

“We utilize all parts of the sugar cane—it’s a great way to reduce waste and increase efficiency,” said Micah Guidry, St. Mary’s general manager. “The crop is versatile but it’s also tricky—if you don’t process it within 24 hours, the sugar content goes down. And Louisiana is the most northern region where sugar cane is produced, meaning we have a shorter growing season. In order to keep expanding and meeting the needs of our members, we needed to add an additional boiler.”

Currently, St. Mary has seven boilers, three of which are originals from its founding nearly 80 years ago. With an eye to the future, the co-op is adding an eighth boiler, financed by its longtime partner, CoBank. The $20 million project will not only improve efficiency of the plant, but will accelerate the co-op’s grinding time and capabilities.

“Processing sugar cane is a 24/7 endeavor and we are oftentimes at the mercy of mother nature. By adding this new boiler, we can grind more cane, increasing our output and hopefully saving a few days of labor,” Guidry said. “We are grateful to CoBank for facilitating the loan—we have been with the bank for several decades, and they have been an incredible resource as we’ve implemented changes for the betterment of our members, staff and board.”

St. Mary has experienced steady growth over the years—in 1947, it produced approximately 11 million pounds of sugar compared with 2022, where it produced an impressive 357 million pounds. With the new boiler in place, which is slated to be ready by the 2024 harvest season, the co-op plans to process even more tons of sugar—and on less of a time crunch.

This story was originally published in the CoBank 2023 Annual Report.