It is said that prosperity is a great teacher, but adversity is a much tougher taskmaster. Those opposing ideas faced the management of the old Breaux Bridge Sugar Cooperative and the St. Martin Sugar Cooperative back in the 1980s and 90s.
Michael G. (Mike) Melancon of Henderson was a young farmer back then and he delivered his cane to the Breaux Bridge co-op. He is now the president of Louisiana Sugar Cane Cooperative (LASUCA), the raw sugar producing powerhouse that was formed by the merger of the Breaux Bridge and St. Martin operations.
Story by Sam Irwin, American Sugar Cane League
Melancon said both mills were prosperous enough in the 1980s, but things were changing rapidly in the sugarcane industry and mill management of both operations could see adversity just over the horizon.
“Breaux Bridge had a good cane supply, but it needed to grow,” Melancon said. “The mill was limited because of its location. St. Martin was grinding about the same amount of cane and in a better location to expand, but it was also lacking the connections to get more cane supply.”
Melancon said both mills had a lot in common. St. Martin served the southern part of the parish while Breaux Bridge served the north. There was lot of French spoken at both mills. Growers and mill people were neighbors and the two mills shared the same banker. The bank thought merging the two operations would be a good move.
“We had a lot of discussion,” Melancon said. “It was obvious Breaux Bridge would close if we merged but we wondered what we would be giving up if we let our factory close. Certainly, both groups wanted to understand what costs would be in incurred to expand into one mill.”
While the merger idea was simmering, Mother Nature, science and technology provided both adversity and opportunity that pushed the two mills to work together.
“We had a few years of discussion, but the 1989 freeze made the 1990 crop smaller and we decided to grind all the cane supply at St. Martin,” Melancon said. “The overall attitude about the merger began to change when we successfully did the crop in one mill. It was mutually beneficial, and it set the tone.”
(Photo: Mike Melancon, above)
In other words, Melancon said, “We had to live together before we could get married.”
The merger took place on paper in 1993 but grinding operations at both mills continued as normal. It was decided to raise the capacity of St. Martin at a slow pace while the transition took place. Two innovations in the sugarcane world also took place in the 1990s to help the transition along. A scientific advancement, the introduction of the new variety, LCP 85-384, significantly increased cane supply. The second game changer was on the equipment side. Billet harvesters revolutionized harvesting techniques and allowed farmers to expand their acreage.
“The first year we hauled all the cane to the St. Martin location was 2002,” Melancon said. “Our vision was little blurry back then, but our hindsight is clear. We made mostly all the right moves and were supported by good management and good farmers.”
Mike Comb, general manager of the mill, said they’re in the middle of an improvement plan.
“We’re upgrading every station in the factory for capacity and efficiently,” Comb said. “We’re in the third year of our five-year plan but our end goal has changed because the cane supply keeps growing. When we first started down this path our target was 1.5 million tons, but we surpassed that this year. The number now is 1.8 million. Right now, we’re targeting to get the capacity up to 21,000 tons per day. When I came on 15 years ago, we were an 8,000-ton factory…10 years ago, a 10,000 factory.
LASUCA currently grinds 12,500 tons of cane per day, but Comb said the upgrades will bring them up to 21,000 tons by 2020.
Photo: Mike Comb
Where is the increased cane supply coming from? Comb said LASUCA is seeing more cane coming to them from Avoyelles, Pointe Coupee, St. Landry and Rapides parishes. He also noted Vermilion is also rapidly expanding.
“The traditional cane parishes like St. Martin and Assumption are saturated and will probably lose some acreage,” he said. “But cane won’t go away.”
Comb and Melancon know there will also be adversity and LASUCA’s management tries to anticipate the issues. Some concerns are within their control and some aren’t.
“You can’t find a trained sugar boiler in the United States and getting visas for workers from Honduras, Costa Rica Mexico and Guatemala is difficult,” Comb said. “It’s not something we can control.”
Bagasse storage is also a problem, but Comb is hopeful that ongoing research with the cane by-product to compact it into fuel pellets will be successful.
LASUCA employs 80 staff full-time year-round, but during grinding, extra truck drivers and harvesting operations swell their ranks up to 400.
Ultimately, since LASUCA is a co-op and owned by the growers, the goal for LASUCA is to serve the growers, Comb said.
“To me, the most important statement you can make is to say everything we do is in the best interests of the growers,” he said. “We’re a co-op and we’ve determined that increasing the cane supply and capacity and efficiency will provide the greatest benefits to the growers.”
(Editor’s note: This is first in a series of sugar mill profiles for the Sugar News).
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