Dan Duplantis Jr.’s job search pretty much ended the day he was born 51 years ago. It seems he was destined to work in the sugarcane industry and it’s no surprise he ended up being the general manager of Raceland Raw Sugar, the sugarcane mill in Lafourche Parish just north of the town of Raceland.
“My father (Dan Duplantis Sr.) started working in sugar in 1968 when I was born,” Duplantis said. “I’m fourth generation. I grew up on the farm in Mathews. My dad worked for South Coast Sugars (the previous name of the Raceland Raw Sugar operation). He started out as a field manager, same as me. He worked his way up and became the general manager.”
Story and photos by Sam Irwin
Dan Jr.’s rise to general manager of Raceland Raw Sugar did not come easily. He put the time in. He earned a two-year sugarcane technology degree from Nicholls State University and went to work.
“I came to South Coast in 1989 and worked for three years on the farm,” Duplantis said. “Savannah Foods bought the mill and farm, but I realized under Savannah I needed to finish my college degree if I was going to move up in the company, so I went back to school.”
Duplantis finished his degree in agriculture business from Nicholls State University but his career path took him in another direction to ag chemical sales. When the M. A. Patout sugar organization bought Raceland from Savannah in 1996, he was hired on as an assistant general manager.
“I was in charge of the growers and all the property we had, transportation and quotas. That’s what I did until 2014,” Duplantis said.
Duplantis noted that Raceland has come a long way since Patout took over because they are focused solely on sugar production.
“Patout is extreme sugar,” Duplantis said. “Everything they do is sugar.”
The Patout group helped Raceland navigate through mill advancement and procurement of cane supply.
“In 1996 there were 19 sugarcane mills in the state; now there are 11,” Duplantis said. “Around here we had Caldwell, St. James, Glenwood, Evan Hall…but all the mills back then were much smaller. Raceland, which was probably one of the larger mills in the state 25 years ago, had a capacity of 500,000 tons of cane and making 100 million pounds of raw sugar. Last year we did 1,528,000 tons and 345 million pounds of sugar. That’s a significant increase in a short amount of time. Enterprise (a M. A. Patout mill in Patoutville) was starting to grow and they passed us up but the mid-90s is when increase in capacity and growth started happening in the mills.”
Duplantis says Raceland’s growth is due to several factors: a good management team and employees, solid growers, improved harvesting technology and improved sugar recovery, but he gives a large amount of the credit to the sugarcane industry’s variety development program. The American Sugar Cane League forged an alliance with the United States Department of Agriculture and the LSU AgCenter decades ago to develop cane varieties for the Louisiana landscape.
“We’ve always had a great variety program but around 1996 they came out with LCP 85-384 and we bought a billet combine harvester and did some contract cutting,” Duplantis said.
The new billet harvesters combined with the new variety was a shot in the arm for the Louisiana cane industry, Duplantis said. The new combines allowed a single farmer to harvest lodged cane with heavy tonnage.
“You have to continue to grow,” Duplantis said. “As soon as you sit still, someone is going to pass you up. We continue to grow. We continue to increase the size of our factory through technology and advanced equipment because the cane supply is growing every year. You have to keep up with that. We’ve got a breeding program that is doing a great job for us and it’s cranking out varieties right now that have more cold tolerance, more disease resistance, and excellent stubbling ability. They’re giving us everything we’re looking for.
“Over the last couple of years with the freezes we’ve been through and with the rain last year, there’s no reason we should have the crop that’s in the field right now. In 2018, we ran for 111 days and recorded rain on 45 days. We stayed wet the whole time and we damaged a lot of fields in the process, but these varieties keep coming back. We’ve got to give a lot of credit to the variety program for that. It’s helping us maximize what we’re doing per acre out in the field.”
Duplantis is quick to praise his mill work force for keeping everything running well.
“We’ve got good people,” Duplantis said. “We ’ve got Jose Diaz as the plant manager and he takes care of everything in the factory. Jose came to the United States in 2002 and worked at Sterling Sugar. In 2014, he came to Raceland and in 2016, he became an American citizen. He’s done a great job in getting the factory to where it is today.”
Duplantis also singled out Craig Degravelle, Raceland’s field manager.
“Craig takes care of everything outside the mill,” Duplantis said. “He takes care of the growers, the truckers and all the company-owned land and the landlords. There are just so many moving pieces to goes in it so, when we start it off, it goes smoothly.”
Duplantis said the mill is in the middle of a three-year expansion.
“We’re getting ready for bigger crops,” he said. “We didn’t think we’d do a 1.5 million tons for a couple more years. God blessed us with a great crop. In the meantime, we’re adding mills, evaporators, clarifiers and centrifugals. It’s designed to process more cane and make more sugar. We are working with about 39 ,000 acres of cane, but as acres increase and the variety programs continue to give us better varieties, we have to be able to process it all in a timely manner.”