St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Raising Cane

It’s hard not to feel a little guilty having enjoyed mostly sunny mild weather through January down here in Southern Louisiana, while getting emails from up north telling about 32 below and snow. If we were there, we would be burning fuel trying to keep warm, adding to the increasing cost of energy and dumping carbon dioxide into the air. Helping the environment by sacrificing the comforts of home for strange places and tropical climates does give us a warm feeling of doing our part over those of you who just ordered another tanker load of fuel for February.

We had one pleasant 3-inch rain overnight, the rain drops falling on the canvas over our bed in the pop-up camper soothing our slumbers and drowning out the roar of frogs, gators and owls. The temperatures have ranged from a few days in the 40s to a sweltering 75 last Friday that brought some mosquitoes to life. Made us nostalgic for Wisconsin and Minnesota. There are individual orange and grapefruit trees in yards here and there and a few orange groves—the oranges appear to be ripening, but none for sale yet. Almost 100% of the fields in the 30 miles around the area we have explored are in sugar cane.

Lake Fausse Pointe State Park is on the edge of the Atchafalaya Basin, just west of the levee that channels the Atchafalaya river into a 20 mile wide, 150 mile long swamp. At the north end is a big set of gates that controls the Mississippi, allowing the US Corp of Engineers to run water down the current Mississippi channel, or divert some to the old Mississippi channel, now called the Atchafalaya River. Without the diversion project, the Mississippi would have already changed its main channel to the Atchafalaya years ago.

The area is honeycombed with old and new oil wells, the area underlain with natural gas and oil that has been pumped since the 1930s. In the 1950s to 1970s, huge dredges created cross channels to allow access to new well drilling. This has changed some of the freshwater marshes into saltwater, as the ocean has flowed into the deep channels. We are far enough away from the oil spill (to the south east of us) that the only effect are the claims for BP oil money being distributed to those who can prove financial losses from the spill. The locals in that area have gone pretty much hog wild making claims—some fraudulent, some wildly exaggerated, and some legitimate. There is 20 billion to be distributed of BP money, and every crook from Texas to Florida has managed to put in some kind of claim to confuse the legitimate ones. The folks down here take after their politicians; corrupt as you can possibly be.

The Mississippi has been channelized most of the way south from Iowa and thus runs through faster. Before this, the silt coming downriver deposited at the mouth of the river, creating the huge swamps and marshes that are here. Now it rushes through and dumps the silt out over the continental shelf, into deep water and so the land along the southern Louisiana coast is gradually disappearing rather than building up—29 square miles per year according to the U.S. Geological Survey. One Wisconsin township is 36 square miles, so almost one township is disappearing each year. This has been going on for 50 years or more. It would be a good idea for some of the farmers up there in Wisconsin and Minnesota to revert to their high erosion, clear field plowing to bring back the days when tons of topsoil ran down the streams and rivers into the Mississippi, or Louisiana may just disappear altogether.

Where we are camping is about 50% under water. Built up roads and natural ridges are surrounded by standing water and bayous (Indian name for streams) and cypress swamps. The whole of the area is ranges from about 3 feet above sea level to sea level. It seems to me that if everyone in WI and MN melted the ice cubes in their refrigerator and ran them down the drain, we would surely be under water here. Most of the buildings are up on 8 foot stilts anticipating the spring floods that come most years.

This area is almost exclusively in sugar cane fields—large, flat corrugated fields, some having been in sugar cane since it was first introduced here in 1751. We toured a museum at Jeanrette that was devoted to the sugar cane industry—they advertise the town as “Sugar City.” As a farm kids and maple sugar people ourselves, Margo and I were fascinated by the sugar cane growing and processing going on in the area.

Sugar cane fields are laid out in ridged rows about 18 inches high and 6 feet apart. The water table is high and with frequent rains, the ridges allow the plants to be up out of the water. Water drains down the troughs and into larger drains and out of the fields without drowning the cane. Farmers have special disks, pull graders, and cultivators to make and handle the ridges. These ridges and drains are called the “bank system.”

Wikipedia says: “Sugarcane cultivation requires a tropical or temperate climate, with a minimum of 24 in of annual moisture. It is one of the most efficient photosynthesizers in the plant kingdom. It is able to convert up to 1 percent of incident solar energy into biomass. In prime growing regions, sugarcane can produce 20 lb of biomass for each square meter exposed to the sun.”

“Although sugarcanes produce seeds, modern stem cutting has become the most common reproduction method. Billets (chunks of stem that look like bamboo with at least one junction where a sprout will form) harvested from a mechanical harvester are planted by a machine which opens and recloses the ground. Once planted, a stand can be harvested several times; after each harvest, the cane sends up new stalks, called ratoons. Successive harvests give decreasing yields, eventually justifying replanting. Two to ten harvests may be possible between plantings.”

In Louisiana, one-third of the land is fallow, waiting to be planted, and the rest in sugarcane. Every 11 months a harvest is made in the fall. Cane here is harvested 3 times over three years off the same root before a total replanting. One third is replanted each year. It seems, that like alfalfa, it gradually produces less each year. Planting is in the fall when the tops of the sugar cane stalks are available to be spread in the ditches between the ridges; then the old ridges are disked over the stalks and make a new set of ridges. Cultivation is not done after the first season.

Monsanto and other cane seed producers are tinkering with the genes in the cane plant and expect to have a “Roundup-Ready/Bt” plant available by 2015. Growers are debating whether consumers will balk at genetically modified sugar products. Sugar beet farmers in NW MN are already into a legal debate over the use of “Roundup-Ready” beets there. Sugar cane is sprayed for pests and fertilized quite heavily.

Slaves were brought to this part of Louisiana primarily to work on sugar plantations. It is a year around effort with harvesting lasting from about September to December. In the old days, everything was done by hand with the aid of mules. Nowadays, it is highly mechanized with expensive harvesters that cut the stalk, clean away the leaves and any dirt, cut it into billets and have it ready for processing at large central sugar plants, often farmer’s co-operatives. Much of the cane sugar here ends up as Domino brand.

Farmers traditionally have burned the cane fields in the fall to get rid of the leaves and smaller stalks parts and just leave the juicy canes. It is a real controversy here because of the nuisance to the neighbors and our higher rates of respiratory problems. A letter to the editor in the local newspaper last October describes it: “Giant smoke plumes all around the horizon; black ashes falling like snow. I knew that the burning had begun because I awoke with my sinuses full. Sure enough, when I left for work, I could see the angry plumes. Nothing like the familiar view of insecticide-laden haze all around!”
“Oh and it’s good for the economy, too. The hospitals, pulmonologists and respiratory therapists will all benefit from an increased load of lung patients (asthmatics, COPDers, sinusitis patients) flooding through their doors. “

Bigger farmers who can afford a $150,000 harvester don’t burn anymore, but smaller ones can’t afford it and still burn. The harvester cuts the stalks into billets, which are delivered at the factory where they are washed, ground, crushed and pressed to give up the sweet cane juice. Then many steps of filtering and boiling and crystallizing are done to end up first with raw sugar, sort of a brown looking sugar, then more of the same to end up with pure white sugar. Molasses and bagasse (pronounced as two words-bag gas) are the byproducts. Bagasse is the fiber left and is burned to fuel the boilers. Molasses is sold for mixing in animal feed and for the grocery. Inside the sugar warehouses, huge trucks and loader tractors handle the sugar—looking like the activity in a gravel pit. Eventually it is bagged and shipped to retailers. Some local cooks insist that cane sugar is better for cooking with than beet sugar.

I was hard pressed to find out the actual profit for a sugar cane farmer in Louisiana, but it appears that on a very good year, when the yield is good, the harvest season is not too wet, the sugar content is high, a profit of up to $300 per acre can be had; other years are break-even only or losses that are somewhat covered by insurance programs. In a radius of about 40 miles from the park, we saw only sugar cane fields. Rice has moved further west and north. There appears to be no crop rotation in this area.

Sugar was very profitable in the 100 years before the civil war. Labor was from slaves and huge land holdings made some planters immensely rich. They built large mansions, known here as ante-bellum plantation homes. There are still many around to tour.

We toured “Shadows on the Teche” in nearby New Iberia. Most of these plantation homes are the same—huge columns supporting porches at the front and back; storage and servant quarters on the 3rd floor, family living quarters on the second, and office, dining, kitchen, parlor and library on the main floor. The ceilings are 12 foot or so the heat will stay at the top of the room. Each room has a fireplace for heating, the only built in item. The rooms are furnished with hardwood wardrobes, sideboards, beds, tables, fine woodwork, expensive curtains, paintings of the ancestors, expensive china and porcelain objects and statuary in the gardens.

Each house was originally surrounded by outbuildings including a separate cooking building, a smokehouse, servants quarters, and housing for the animals. The tour guides are always very careful to use the word “servant” when they mean “slave.” The local tour guides almost completely ignore that the whole plantation culture and life of leisure portrayed was on the back of black slaves. In touring a dozen or more of these homes over many years, I have never seen a black person as a tour guide. Tourist from the north ask questions about slavery, and the tour guides generally say something like “most masters were good to their slaves and treated them as part of the family. When the Union soldiers came through they destroyed the culture.”

In almost every slave owner’s plantation (Shadows on the Teche owner had about 300 slaves), many of the slave children were “mullattoes,” product of the white male owners having children with the slave women. White wives looked the other way and continued to insist that the southern plantation culture was above that of the money-grubbing businessmen of the north, the Yankees.

When the war came, this area was a battleground and had a lot of destruction. After the war, the former slave owners had to convert to a hired labor role. Blacks who had hoped to become land owners and farmers in their own right, were for the most part pushed into plantation jobs that barely paid enough to live on. The white folks did what they could to keep black people uneducated, without the rights of a citizen (voting, holding office, fair trials…). They succeeded for 100 years and only since the 1960s have things begun to change for the better down here.

The area is backwards in terms of education, housing, salaries etc. Just about any measure comparing states puts Louisiana and its southern neighbors of Mississippi and Alabama at the bottom. “People down here kept black folks down for a few hundred years. You can’t prosper as a state doing that,” said Leon, a native Louisianan and retired school teacher who was RVing near us. “That and our history of mostly corrupt politicians at every level, make us more like a third world country. There is a third factor too, we are a very religious people – about 1/3 Catholic and most of the rest fundamentalists. Our church leaders teach us that our reward will be in heaven. I think this gives us an excuse for not improving our own condition here.”

Probably the most striking thing you see down here on the back roads are the water filled ditches filled with floating litter; the Styrofoam, aluminum, plastic and paper wastes that you see folks chucking out the windows. Towns and cities have made great efforts to clean their litter, but my how ugly the rural areas next to them are. Beer, Mountain Dew and McDonalds seem to predominate, but if it comes in a package of any kind, you will see it in the ditches of Louisiana. Margo thought we might volunteer to pick up some garbage along a stretch of waterfilled ditches. “Well, be careful of the poisonous snakes and the gators,” warned Leon, dampening her enthusiasm significantly.