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Sugar Association introduces influencers to sugarcane country

In 2021, the Sugar Association hosted its first ever “Real Sugar: Farm-to-Table” tours to showcase the American sugar industry to prominent social media influencers. The tours visited sugarbeet and sugarcane harvests to let popular online personalities with an interest in food and health learn about the origins of sugar.

A woman and man talk in a sugarcane field. The woman is holding a notebook, and the man is speaking with his hand out, gesturing. Sugarcane partially obscures the man. In the background, two other woman and tall sugarcane is visible.
Laura Rutherford learns about sugarcane production from Jim Simon, general manager of the American Sugar Cane League.
Contributed / The Sugar Association

In the United States, nearly half of all domestically produced sugar comes from sugarbeets and the other half comes from sugarcane. In December 2021, I had the exciting opportunity to travel to Louisiana as a guest of the Sugar Association to experience the sugarcane side of the American sugar industry for the first time.

In 2021, the Sugar Association hosted its first ever “Real Sugar: Farm-to-Table” tours to showcase the American sugar industry to prominent social media influencers. The Sugar Association, founded in 1943, is the scientific voice of the United States sugar industry focused on health and nutrition of the sugar we produce. The group represents both beet and cane sugar producers, and shares responsible scientific research about sugar.

The first farm-to-table sugarbeet tour took place on Sept. 28-30, 2021, in the Red River Valley region of Minnesota . On Dec. 13-14, 2021, eight social media diet, lifestyle and wellness influencers, including chefs, bloggers, dietitians and a neuroscientist, met in New Orleans for the sugarcane farm-to-table tour.

The two-day event, hosted by the Sugar Association, the American Sugar Cane League and the American Sugar Refining company, provided influencers a firsthand view of the sugarcane harvest in action. Attendees also toured the Lula-Westfield sugar factory and Domino Sugar’s Chalmette refinery, the largest sugar refinery in the western hemisphere.

“We brought influencers with expertise in food and nutrition to Louisiana and Minnesota because we thought they would appreciate seeing the process from the field to mills, factories and refineries,” said Dr. Courtney Gaine, President and CEO of the Sugar Association. “Nothing can replace the experience of standing in the fields and riding in the harvesters. By connecting these guests with sugar, the plants, the process and the people, our hope is they feel more connected, more informed and more likely to carry that with them as they communicate with others .”

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Twelve people wearing yellow hard hats pose at a sugar factory in Louisiana. Large equipment is in the background.
The Sugar Association brought a group of influencers to the Lula-Westfield sugar factory in Louisiana.
Contributed / The Sugar Association

The tour in Louisiana kicked off with a bus ride to a sugarcane farm about an hour west of New Orleans. Attendees enjoyed shrimp po’boys, a traditional sandwich of Louisiana, while receiving an overview of sugarcane farming from Jim Simon, general manager of the ASCL and Charley Richard of C. Richard & Associates.

Louisiana, in its third century of production, is the oldest U.S. sugar producing area, according to Simon. Sugarcane first arrived in the state with Jesuit priests in 1751 and was initially planted where their church now stands on Baronne Street in New Orleans. By 1795, several plantations had been established on the outskirts of New Orleans, and sugar was first granulated on a commercial scale in Audubon Park in 1795 by Etienne de Boré.

“Today, sugarcane is the largest row crop in Louisiana, and our farmers and millers take pride in the crucial role we play in providing a safe and reliable supply of sugar for America’s families,” Simon said. “Having the opportunity to introduce consumers to our farmers through events like this is one of the more rewarding aspects of my work. We hope efforts like this tour provide consumers with a better understanding of the significant resources and effort needed to provide sugar for our country.”

The sugar industry is vital to the state’s economy with an annual farm gate of $1 billion to cane growers and raw sugar factories, while also generating an overall economic impact of $3 billion. Sugarcane is produced on more than 500,000 acres of land in 22 Louisiana parishes with a production of approximately 16 million tons of cane yearly. About 17,000 jobs are supported in the production and processing of sugarcane, and the state has 11 raw sugar mills. The city of Alexandria is the northernmost part of the state where sugarcane can be commercially produced. All points north of Alexandria are unable to grow the crop due to increased likelihood of freeze.

“The highest land, which is always right next to the river or bayou, is where sugarcane is grown,” Richard said. “The further away you get from the river, the more clay the soil becomes and therefore harder to work with.”

During the bus ride, Richard explained that Louisianians don’t use standard directions such as north and south.

“We navigate according to the river and use terms like ‘riverside,’ ‘lakeside’ and ‘east bank,’” he said. “We don’t use a compass because the river has so many twists and turns.”

After traveling “upriver,” the bus arrived on the “west bank” at a sugarcane field being harvested by fifth generation farmer Stephen Simoneaux, 36, and his father Rodney. The Simoneauxs own and operate U&R Farms in Plattenville. Influencers were able to ride with Stephen in his combine-type sugarcane harvester and see the crop up close. However, the group was warned not to get up close and personal with the red fire ants that reside in large mounds in sugarcane fields. Despite their nasty bite, the ants are welcome residents. They are one of the most efficient predators of the main pest of sugarcane, the sugarcane borer, and are considered an effective biological control strategy.

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The Simoneauxs were nearing the end of their harvest, which began in September and was Stephen’s 12th full-time harvest season. Unlike sugarbeets, sugarcane is planted in rows in the fall using whole stalks of cane rather than true seed. There are seven to ten sugarcane varieties available to growers, and most growers plant three varieties. After its initial planting, sugarcane is a perennial grass that is harvested for about four years before being replanted. Each stalk is made up of several joints and each joint has a bud. The buds produce shoots of cane the following spring after being planted. After maturing into stalks during the late summer, the first cane crop harvested in the fall is called the “plant cane crop.” Each subsequent harvest is called a “ratoon.” In Louisiana, two to four ratoon crops are harvested before the land must be fallowed and replanted.

The 2021 sugarcane harvest wrapped up successfully, according to Stephen Simoneaux.

“For our area, and to the south and east, tonnage was well below our 10-year average. This was due mainly to the excessive amount of rainfall we caught in spring and summer,” he said. “We received close to 90 inches of rain for the year and that’s with a dry fall and winter. Then we caught a direct hit from Hurricane Ida in the grand growth stage, which didn’t help.”

Despite the challenges, harvest is Stephen’s favorite part of sugarcane farming.

“You see the product of the hard work you put in all year long. We cannot control Mother Nature, as we saw firsthand in 2021, but in farming you take the good with the bad,” he said. “It’s great to have visitors come to our area and operation and see that we are family farms. Almost all farms here are multiple generations working together to produce the safest, most sustainable product we can. Without our greatest asset, the land, we have no livelihood. We are truly just trying to make life a little bit sweeter.”

After visiting the sugarcane field, influencers toured the Lula-Westfield mill in Belle Rose. The mill was built in the late 1800s and was purchased by the Savoie family in the 1920s. Stephen Savoie is the sixth generation of his family to be in the milling business. He started off as an engineer at the factory and is currently CEO of Lula-Westfield, LLC.

“Like farming, milling in Louisiana is a family business for many generations of people and we also have multi-generation employees here at the factory,” Savoie said. “Lula factory receives sugarcane from three neighboring parishes and has a grinding capacity of 12,000 tons per day. Cane is a perishable crop and once harvested, it needs to be delivered to the factory and processed within 18 hours.”

After sugar is extracted from the cane at the mills, it is stored in warehouses until sold to refineries like American Sugar Refining (Domino) in Chalmette. At the refinery, the raw sugar crystals are melted to remove the remaining impurities and produce white sugar. Chalmette, established in 1901, has 420 employees and refines 7.5 million pounds of raw sugar each day.

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“Whether it comes from sugarbeets or sugarcane, sugar is a fascinating plant product,” said Michelle Miller of Gainesville, Florida. “It is not an over-processed chemical product like the media likes to portray.”

Miller, also known as “Farm Babe,” is an internationally known advocate for American agriculture.

“I was a city girl who went to college in Los Angeles and fell victim to every food label under the sun,” Miller said. “I ended up dating a farmer and moving to Iowa, and it was an eye-opening experience for me. As I learned the truth about modern agricultural production, I wanted to share that with others.”

The farm-to-table tour was the first time Miller had seen sugarcane being harvested.

“I really just enjoyed seeing the whole process, and so did my social media followers,” she said. “There is a lot of interest in agriculture. My video of the sugarcane harvest in action had one million views.”

American agriculture in general would benefit from doing more farm-to-table tours, according to Miller.

“It’s important to show people who we are and what we’re doing. With science communications, we moved the needle significantly on GMOs, but now we all need to do more to debunk myths about agriculture,” Miller said. “Celebrities have powerful voices and need to hear from us the most. Agriculture, as a whole, needs to do more with the media and get positive and truthful content onto streaming platforms like Hulu and Netflix.”

The Louisiana farm-to-table tour dispelled a few myths about sugar for Andrea Mathis, a registered dietitian and food blogger from Birmingham, Alabama.

“I’ve been on a few farm tours before and each one is such a unique and informative experience,” said Mathis, creator of the blog “ Beautiful Eats and Things .” “I loved the sugarcane tour because it showcased the entire sugar-making process. It also dispelled the myth about chemicals being added during the refining process and showed that this is not true. I was excited to share that information with my followers.”

Mathis, a mom of two who is passionate about nutrition, became a dietitian and blogger to help others get credible nutrition information from credible nutrition experts.

“I constantly receive questions about fad diets and the latest health trends on social media. Most people think that being ‘healthy’ has a certain look, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said. “Someone’s complete health status cannot be determined just by looking at their outward appearance. My nutrition philosophy is centered around making attainable, healthful lifestyle changes without restriction. This can be done by incorporating more plant-based meals, enrolling in a fun workout class and drinking more water.”

Mathis hopes her blog shows people that healthier eating can be easy, practical and delicious.

“I want to dispel the myth that you can’t enjoy things such as pizza, hamburgers and sugar when trying to live a healthier lifestyle,” she said. “The truth is that all foods can fit into any lifestyle. It’s all about moderation and listening to your body’s hunger cues.”

No matter where we go, food is a uniting factor that brings people together.

“Folks from Louisiana love to talk about food and that’s one of the reasons we were so happy to host the Sugar Association and the influencers who showcase food and nutrition on their platforms,” said Sam Irwin, public relations director of the American Sugar Cane League. “The farm-to-table sugar making experience in the Bayou State is truly unique and we think our visitors got a real taste of Louisiana.”

Related Topics: SUGARBEETSAGRICULTURE
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