Reaping Sweetness from the Fields

For approximately 100 days starting each early October, the team at St. Mary Sugar Cooperative runs a race against time and the weather to process the annual sugar cane crop while it has its highest potential and before any of it is ruined in the field.

The intense, three-plus month endeavor sees each member-grower striving to harvest their cane when the sugar content is highest and before winter weather freezes the fields and sends the sugar back into the roots. It’s a balancing game – the longer the cane grows, the higher the sugar content and the higher the value, but there is also the risk of damage. The challenge is that sugar cane must be processed within 24 hours after it is cut, or the sugar content starts to drop. St. Mary’s role is to take in the truckloads mounded with cane from its 104 members, weigh it and measure the sugar content to pay the grower appropriately, and get the cane processed – ground, pressed and boiled – quickly to be ready for the next load. With the acreage it pulls from, based on weather and other factors during the growing season, it can have a swing of 300,000 tons of cane year-to-year.

“We analyze each year’s crop to predict what production will be so we can plan our resource allocation, always trying to be more efficient to squeeze as much juice as we can, as quickly as we can,” said St. Mary’s general manager Micah Guidry.

We hit it off with CoBank from the get-go because we have the same cooperative mindset and they understand our business

The cooperative’s seven boilers power the intense process of cooking the cane juice down to syrup, which is later crystallized and packaged for sale. Three of those boilers are originals from the cooperative’s founding in 1946, kept in service through careful maintenance over more than seven decades of annual use. The other four were added individually from 1960 to 1998 to support St. Mary’s steady growth and commitment to consistently increasing efficiency: in 1947, it processed just under 74,000 tons of cane to produce approximately 10.1 million pounds of sugar; in 2022, it processed around 1.5 million tons of sugar cane to produce 353 million pounds of sugar. An eighth boiler, financed by CoBank, which has been St. Mary’s financial partner since 1989 and its predecessor bank before that, is being put into service in 2024.

“We hit it off with CoBank from the get-go because we have the same cooperative mindset and they understand our business,” says Trini Foti, St. Mary’s chief financial officer. “They’ve been with us to finance our growth over the decades, and hopefully our continued growth as one of only two sugar cooperatives left in Louisiana.”

Processing sugar cane is one primary focus of St. Mary’s operation; the cooperative also manages a subsidiary, St. Mary Sugar Land Company, which purchases sugar cane farmland – more than 1,500 acres – and rents it to growers to increase and secure its cane supply. The cooperative hopes to continue purchasing acreage as one avenue to continued growth – growth that’s supported by 115 full-time employees who are supplemented by an additional 60 during the 24/7 processing season.

“Our members, staff and board, who are elected from among our members, are the biggest reasons for our success,” said Guidry. “We have an outstanding core group of people, from farmers to employees, who we know will be a big driver in our future success, as well.”