by Rachel Klaus
To many, sugar is just a sweet and tasty treat. But to some, like those in South Louisiana, sugar is a way of life.
For Lester Gravois, 95 of Thibodaux, he has been farming sugarcane since 1937. He started growing sugar with his father, Charles, and now works with his son, Bobby.
“I started working with my daddy long ago, and before we could go out in the field we had to feed our mules,” Lester says, “That meant getting up at 3 in the morning and I tell you it was work. Compare to what we do now to what we did back then,
it wasn’t cake. But you know it was life.”
During the harvest season, which starts in late September, they start before the sun comes up and finish long after it sets. And while the harvest season only lasts about 100 days, the work of producing sugar continues all year. Shortly after they finish the work of the harvest, it’ll be time to plant again for next year.
In the Bayou Region of Louisiana, the production of sugarcane goes back nearly three centuries. And Lafourche Parish, where Gravois is based, harvests 15 percent of all sugar cane crops in Louisiana.
Since sugarcane was first brought to New Orleans by the Jesuit priests in 1751, it has has grown to be a bedrock of the South Louisiana economy. Roughly 5,000 sugarcane farmers farmed more than 403,000 acres of cane in 2016 in Louisiana, bringing in $450 million, according to the American Sugar Cane League.
This economic impact is made through a lot of hard work. Hard work and good weather. The crop can only be as perfect as the weather — enough rain throughout the growing season to make the stalks grow tall and dry at the end to make the juice sweet. Luckily, the weather has been perfect in South Louisiana this year.
And while the tools used to harvest and process are different today than when Gravois first started — mechanical combine harvesters versus mules and hand tools — the process is really still the same. The cane stalk is cut into pieces, the leaves are discarded and then the stalks are brought to a mill. Once the stalks are brought to the mill they are crushed into a juice, boiled down to a thick syrup until crystals form.
Sugarcane shapes our region from the ground up. From the families that grow it to the families that refine it, it’s in their blood. It’s a way of life.