Charley Richard shares a lifetime of sugar knowledge, from cane and beets
Few people know both sugarcane and sugarbeets as well as Charley Richard (pronounced Ree-shard) of New Orleans, Louisiana, who works in both the beet and cane side of the American sugar industry.
Roughly half of sugar grown in the United States comes from sugarbeets and the other half comes from sugarcane. Sugar, or sucrose, is a carbohydrate that occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables and other agricultural crops, but at greater levels from sugarbeets and sugarcane. While the sugar from beets and cane is identical, the two plants are very different. Few people know both crops as well as Charley Richard (pronounced Ree-shard) of New Orleans, Louisiana, who works in both the beet and cane side of the American sugar industry.
Richard grew up on the Greenwood and Orange Grove Plantations near Thibodaux, Louisiana, both of which were owned by Southdown Sugars. His father was a farmer and plantation overseer for the company, and his grandfather was a mechanic. Richard’s favorite childhood memories include riding his bicycle through the cane fields, fishing in the canals, and riding on a plow pulled by a mule.
Richard’s father worked outside all year in heat and cold. After Richard graduated from high school, his mother suggested he go into accounting or some other occupation in a climate-controlled building.
“However, I chose to go into agriculture, knowing this was my calling,” Richard said. “I was determined to work toward making life easier and more efficient for sugarcane farmers through better varieties and management practices.”
Richard received a Bachelor of Science degree in plant science from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux in 1970. He went on to receive a Master of Science degree in 1972 and a Ph.D. in agronomy in 1975 from Louisiana State University. Richard worked in the sugarcane breeding program there and wrote a dissertation titled, “Genetic Inheritance of Sucrose Content in Sugarcane.”
“I quickly recognized that the sugar industry was truly unique because it was so different in all aspects from all of the other crops I studied in school,” he said. “The uniqueness of the genetics of sugarcane, planting and cultural practices, harvesting techniques and equipment used made it even more appealing to work in this industry.”
In 1977, Richard left the LSU sugarcane breeding program and started work as an agronomist with the American Sugar Cane League.
“This was much more to my liking because I was still working in the breeding program but was employed by the industry rather than by government,” Richard said.
When Richard’s mentor and boss Lloyd Lauden retired in 1985, Richard was moved to director of research and field representative of the ASCL. In 1993, he became vice president and director of research. During this time, his work continued in the sugarcane breeding program along with seed increase of potential new varieties. Richard also researched various other topics including cultural practices, fertilizer application, mechanical planting, mechanical harvesting improvements, improving cane quality, cane payment systems, cane processing practices and sugar manufacture. He worked alongside Tom Schwartz with the Sugar Beet Development Council and spent considerable time lobbying for additional research funds for both cane and beets.
“It was then that I began to seriously learn more about the sugarbeet industry and how it was both different and similar to cane,” Richard said.
In 2001, Richard left his position with the ASCL and founded a consulting business called C. Richard & Associates.
“Some of my first endeavors were to develop energy as well as sugar from sugarcane. One of these, in Brawley, California, was a project to produce sugarcane in the desert along with sugarbeets and both would have been processed at the same retrofitted facility,” he said. “Over a period of several years, we had managed to produce more than 200 acres of sugarcane, much of it producing high yields. It was considered to be a successful conclusion to my part of the project, but unfortunately there was not enough interest at the factory to move the project to fruition.”
During the project in Brawley, Richard worked with sugarbeet growers Larry Fleming, Craig Elmore and Carson Kalin to produce the sugarcane.
“The project was rewarding and fun. It involved groundbreaking efforts since there was nothing previously done to show a way forward. New cultural practices, irrigation techniques, and fertilization practices had to be developed from scratch,” he said. “I learned much about the agricultural production of sugarbeets as well as processing practices that would be important in a combined cane/beet operation.”
Richard’s consulting work has also taken him to Central and South America. He worked with sugarcane growers in Guyana on construction of a new sugar factory and helped establish several hundred acres of heirloom varieties of organically grown sugarcane in Belize to be used for rum production.
In 2007, he was asked to take over the managing director position of the Sugar Processing and Research Institute on a part-time basis. SPRI is a private, non-profit international research organization that specializes in process improvements in both the sugarcane and sugarbeet industries. It is one of few, and perhaps only, research organizations that works with both sugarcane and sugarbeets. SPRI works to make processing improvements in both beet and cane, and recent projects involved the nature of cane and beet colorants, odors in beet sugar, and production of alternate products from sugar.
In 2013, Richard accepted a request to also manage the New York Sugar Trade Laboratory on a part-time basis.
“The main function of this laboratory is to conduct third party testing of raw sugar imported into the U.S. The lab also tests raw sugar quality as well as molasses and edible syrups,” Richard said. “Occasionally, there are samples of refined sugar that we are requested to test as well as some beet molasses products.”
Richard is passionate about sharing a lifetime of sugar knowledge. He is a program coordinator and teacher at the Nicholls State University International Sugar Institute, and has written over 400 publications on a wide range of sugar industry topics.
Richard’s wife, Romney Kriedt-Richard, is editor and publisher of Sugar Journal, a monthly technical publication distributed to an international sugar industry audience. The couple’s respective work in the sugar industry has taken them to 33 U.S. states and 46 countries.
Richard has seen many changes in the industry over the course of his career.
“When I first started, we didn’t have personal computers or hand calculators. Many of the things we have now grown accustomed to, like any recordkeeping or factory automation, weren’t possible,” he said. “One of the biggest changes I’ve seen deals simply with our ability to manage data and use this to improve agricultural and factory operations within the cane and beet industries.”
Richard predicts that the mix of satellites and artificial intelligence will enable continued improvement in the American sugar industry in the future.
“When I was growing up, small horsepower tractors using single row equipment and small implements were the norm. More than 50 man hours were required to produce a ton of sugar in Louisiana. That number has dropped to less than six and will continue to fall as more automation is seen in the industry,” he said. “Factory operations, while using almost the same practices, have improved considerably due to more efficient equipment and a better understanding of the technologies that improve sugar recovery in both industries.”
The future is bright and Richard strongly encourages young people to consider a career in the sugar industry.
“Anyone wanting to work in sugar should, first of all, realize how much of a family the international sugar industry is. I would advise them not to skip the basics. Learn the history and how the industry got to where it is today,” he said. “From an educational standpoint, that also means taking the classes that sometimes young people don’t think are important. Chemistry, statistics, intermediary metabolism, and basic engineering can all help provide some of these basic concepts to provide a solid foundation for a successful career.”
The best part of his career are the people, according to Richard.
“Over the years, we have made many friends from around the world that we love to see at every opportunity,” he said. “We have seen many of them prosper and then retire, and then we meet the new and younger people who fill their jobs. This is very encouraging, as we see this as one of the strengths for the future of the sugar industry.”