When farmers put their mind to something, the work gets done. That’s how St. Mary Sugar Co-Op sugarcane mill got started.
“The growers got together then and decided they wanted to control their own fate and destiny, so they invested and built their own sugar mill,” said St. Mary Sugar general manager David Thibodeaux. “June 14, 1946 this place was established. We just celebrated its birthday so that makes it 73 years old. Its first year of operation was 1947. It was a co-operative then; it’s a cooperative today.”
The growers who organized the co-op are listed on a commemorative brass plaque inside the mill office. Hugh A. Junca was the president and manager. The other organizers were A. V. Allain, Elton J. Beaullieu, Herbert Barras, C. Beverly Causey, D.C. Bolin, Karl A. Fortier, W. Prescott Foster, Edward L. Morrison and Spencer G. Todd. Felix P. Broussard was the office manager and assistant secretary-treasurer. The mill is located at the corner of La. 182 (the old Hwy. 90) and La. 318 in the Sorrel community of St. Mary Parish.
No doubt the organizers were efficient farmers for their time, but Thibodeaux says they would be astounded by the St. Mary Co-op milling operation of 2019.
“Today we’re grinding more cane than they ever imagined compared to what they were doing in 1947,” Thibodeaux said. “They were doing 70,000 tons of cane in an entire crop and we do that in less than a week now.”
For the record, St. Mary Sugar ground 1,631,000 tons of cane and produced 337,000,000 pounds of sugar in 115 days in the 2018 season.
“It’s the most cane ever, tonnage-wise, the most sugar ever and the most days of operation ever in the history of the mill,” Thibodeaux said.
Thibodeaux has been at helm of St. Mary Sugar since 2010. He has a sugarcane pedigree. An older brother worked for the M. A. Patout sugar organization for 38 years. His grandfather, originally from Labadieville, settled in the St. Martinville area and farmed cane. When his grandfather passed, Thibodeaux’s father took over the farm. His father died at age 59 of a heart attack in 1961 when Thibodeaux was three years old.
“My father had little formal education,” Thibodeaux said. “He spent years traveling the world in the merchant marines and when my grandfather died, he came home and took over the farm. He had six kids and back in those days, money was very, very tight. My mother had an eighth-grade education. They didn’t make a lot of money and my mother raised us kids after he died.”
Thibodeaux was working in the oil patch when he got an offer from Jeanerette Sugar in 1985. After a few years of sugar experience, he got an offer from Louisiana Sugarcane Products (LSCPI) and went to work under the tutelage of A. J. “Brother” LeBourgeois. Jeanerette Sugar called him back in 1999 to become the mill’s general manager.
Like any good manager, Thibodeaux attributes the success of the mill to the mill’s employees. He credits plant manager Greg Brown with keeping the mechanics of the mill running smoothly. They both credit the mill supervisors and the experience of their work crews.
“We’re hard-headed and stubborn and all of that and that helps,” Thibodeaux said. “Greg and I are fortunate in that we have an experienced crew. We specialize in quality over quantity. You’re only as good as the people you have.”
Thibodeaux has an excellent plant manager with loads of experience in Brown who has an extensive work history in the Louisiana and Florida sugar industries.
“I’m fourth generation sugar,” Brown said, noting his father was the plant manager at Sterling Sugars. “I was building vacuum pans and evaporators and repairing equipment in refineries. It’s been a blessing to be working in this industry with people I like.”
In addition to good people, cane supply is also needed to run a sugar house. The St. Mary Sugar mill got both in 2005 when Jeanerette Sugar closed its doors. St. Mary hired Thibodeaux as an assistant general manager under Ronald “Possum” Guillotte Jr. and absorbed most of Jeanerette’s cane supply.
“After the 2004 crop Jeanerette closed,” Thibodeaux said. “A lot of the farmers were split shippers and sent some cane to Jeanerette and some to St. Mary. St. Mary made an offer to those growers and to the Jeanerette management.”
Thibodeaux said St. Mary was processing 600,000 tons of cane while Jeanerette handled 400,000. St. Mary wanted the Jeanerette supply and made an offer to Thibodeaux and the Jeanerette employees.
“Jeanerette Sugar received their equity and a home for their cane and their employees who wanted to stay in the industry and St. Mary became a million-ton mill,” Thibodeaux said. “It worked out as a win-win for everybody.”
Cane supply has increased for St. Mary and the threat of a killing freeze puts pressure on the millers and the grower. That means mill management must be smart and expedient when it comes to mill expansion.
“Strategically, we’re looking at expansion in the mill because our growers don’t want to be out there 115 days,” Thibodeaux said. “They’d like to grind all the cane we have to grind in 100 days or less because of the freeze situation. We need to narrow this window; 110-115 days is really too long.”
With Louisiana’s cane acreage project to increase from the current 430,000 acres to more than 460,000 in 2021, how do you tool the mill to process more supply in fewer days? By doing the “right thing,” Thibodeaux said.
“If we do the right thing, the right way for the right reason equipment-wise, we can reach our capacity so we can grind more cane in fewer days and make the same or more sugar,” Thibodeaux said. “It’s all about efficiency.”
Thibodeaux admits that’s easier said than done.
“We work on making sure we’re doing the right thing on a daily basis,” he said. “That’s what we strive to do, but with everything that’s going on, you never know. You don’t want to commit to a lot of things and put yourself in a bind by spending a lot of money. What happens if the cane supply changes? Or what happens if we have a storm or if we have a price decrease and you lose growers because of that? There are so many variables you deal with in this industry. There’s a lot you don’t know.”
“It’s all about a return on your investment,” Brown added. “If you can pay an investment back in less than five years, that’s wonderful. But pay it back in a year? That’s remarkable.”
It seems there are few givens in the sugarcane industry. It appears there will be an increasing cane supply, but Mother Nature can change that overnight. Last harvest season was plagued by inordinate rainfall. This season might be dry. Each season presents its own set of challenges and Thibodeaux firmly believes St. Mary Sugar is up to the task.
“We don’t have a lot of employees, but we have a lot of good employees,” Thibodeaux said. “They’re dedicated. Some of them have 35 years of experience here and some of them have worlds of experience at other mills and then came here. When you put it all together, it takes all of that to run a sugar house.”