Sweet Taste of Success

A look at some of the big players in Louisiana sugar

Driving through central Louisiana’s rolling hills in Concordia Parish, you may do a double take as you pass fields of sugar cane. Since 1990, research botanists at LSU Ag have worked to develop cold tolerant varietals of cane. Until this year, cane was a crop solely grown in the southern part of the state.

Matt Frey, his brother, Mitch, and about a dozen other first-timers are harvesting a Cen-LA cane crop now. Why would farmers add sugar cane to the usual rice, corn, soybeans, cattle and crawfish? One word: money! Sugar cane was Louisiana’s first cash crop and has remained in the top ranking for over 200 years.

The tall perennial grass was brought to New Orleans by the Jesuits in 1751 and first planted near the site of where their Baronne Street church stands today. Louisiana’s climate was perfect for cane cultivation as three harvests can result here from just one planting. Once Etienne de Bore discovered how to refine sugar in 1795, we were off to the races, financially speaking.

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Twelve to 14 million tons of sugar are harvested annually, with an economic return of over $2 million. According to Sam Irwin of the American Sugar Cane League, 2016 broke all records for highest sugar yield. Last year, 431,000 acres each produced 7,982 pounds of the sweet stuff. That’s almost double the 4,180 pounds per acre produced in 1975 by the remaining 400 farm families still growing cane, down from over 1,200 farmers 40 years ago.

Despite all the good news, America doesn’t produce enough sugar domestically to satiate the nation’s sweet tooth. Imported sugar can wreack havoc on the industry here, requiring governmental control of the commodity product.

In 2008, NAFTA lifted trade restrictions with Mexico and in 2013, following a bumper crop, Mexican sugar was dumped on the U.S. market causing prices to drop. This past summer, a new sugar trade deal was crafted with Mexico, but U.S. refiners and farmers still have concerns about possible loopholes.

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In some corners of the state, boutique operations are adding to the mix. Since 1944, the Romero family of Three Brothers Farm in Youngsville has cultivated cane on their 29 acres. In the last decade, the father/son team of Bob and Chris Romero has produced raw sugar from their annual harvest. By using heritage crops in traditional ways, Three Brothers products have earned the distinction of being “Certified Cajun” by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture.

Just down the road from Three Brothers in Youngsville, Charles Poirier has achieved legendary status amongst chefs and bakers for his handcrafted cane syrup, made exactly as his great-great-grandfather, farmer Anatole Poirier, did until his death in 1941.

Fascinated by his family’s heritage, Charles began collecting heirloom cane varieties — planting, cultivating and harvesting it himself. He acquired a small mill and began a backyard operation, cooking the syrup down in a 15-pound black iron pot, usually used for cracklins. The one difference between his process and his great-great-grandfather’s is the fuel source. Instead of using a wood fire, Charles uses propane. Otherwise, his syrup is an authentic taste of history.

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Once word began to spread across the food community about the magical Poirier elixir, orders poured in. At the time, it was illegal to sell homemade cane syrup in Louisiana, but once the Louisiana House of Representatives heard Charles’ story and tasted his syrup, that was quickly rectified.

Despite working to double his production annually, Poirier’s Cane Syrup sells out quickly each year. The first batches are released in late October and completely sell out by March.

Dying for a taste? Go see Chef Kelly Fields, executive chef and partner at Willa Jean. An early advocate, Kelly not only makes her cornbread with Poirier’s, but also serves it decadently with butter and more syrup for dipping — an activity I highly recommend!

Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, Louisiana Eats! Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Wednesdays at 1 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.

A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.

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