Making Sugar (part 2)

In Part 1, we got the cane from the field, unloaded it at the mill, chopped up, and now… into the mill it goes.

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Cane is crushed before it even enters the mill.

The cane is pretty much pulverized along the way, and the juice extracted.  In another part of the cane mill complex, a core laboratory is analyzing samples from each load of cane to determine sucrose, moisture and other factors which indicate the sugar yield from each truckload.  The cane is pulverized through the mill – usually involving a series of rollers – and the juice is extracted.  The remaining pulp is called bagasse, and is usually incinerated to fuel the running of the mill.  There’s an awful lot of bagasse, though, and the sugar content means it will ferment quickly – there’s that stench a lot of people complain about.

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Ground cane being processed

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Ground cane being processed (more!)

The juice itself is like any other raw juice – a thin liquid, and frankly, not exactly clean.  It’s cleaned up with slaked lime, and the dirt settles out and is usually returned to the fields.  The juice heads off to evaporators so that it can be boiled down.

a-boiler

Bubble, bubble, boiling sweetness!

If by now you have the idea that a sugar cane factory is a large, hot place with a lot of very massive machinery…you’re right.  Most of the “smoke” people see billowing out of the plant is steam, and both air and water exhaust is monitored and must meet environmental regulations.

Making sugar is an art as well as a science.  It’s one thing to boil the juice down into syrup; it’s something else to coax it into crystalization. It’s a tricky process.

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Checking crystals

Once the magic of crystalization happens, the syrup heads to centrifuges where the crystals are separated from the liquid.  Voila! Raw sugar, which is dried and sent to a warehouse.

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Taking a quick sample from a centrifuge.

Louisiana is home to 11 sugar factories which produce raw sugar, which is sent to refineries that will produce refined sugar and similar products.  Because of the sugar content of the cane, it must be processed quickly after it is cut.  The raw sugar is usually stored in warehouses until it can be shipped to a refinery.

a-warehouse

Cane goes from the mill to a warehouse on a conveyor belt. It pours into a mountain of sugar.

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At the warehouse, the sugar is transferred to dump trucks, which take it to barges, which will take the raw sugar to a refinery.

I often wonder who figured out that the tall, thick cane held this amazing sweet stuff in it.  Since cane was introduced into Louisiana, I don’t think it was the same brave soul who looked at a crawfish and said “I wonder how that tastes?”

So when you sit down to enjoy something sweet this Christmas or Hanukkah, take a moment to think of all those who had a hand in your holiday baking. Chances are many of those folks are at work on Christmas day, because grinding doesn’t stop until all the cane is done. Think about all of those who’ve had a hand in your entire holiday meal, no matter how extravagant or simple, and say a prayer of thanksgiving.

Now I’m going to post this and bake some Christmas cookies with – yep, you guessed it – home-grown Louisiana raw sugar.

Note – all photos © B. D. Lowry; all rights reserved.  Please contact me for use.

Making Sugar

I live in the heart of sugar cane country.  I am literally surrounded by cane fields.  From my front porch, I have a view of oak trees and cane fields and in the summer, you can indeed hear it grow (the cane, that is).  Our  world has changed so much over the past decades that more and more people don’t quite realize exactly where their food comes from.  Well, I can tell you a bit about sugar.

Right now it’s harvest time in south Louisiana.  We actually have a relatively short growing season – cane is planted in the late summer of one year and harvested in the fall of the next.  Most sugar consumed (sugar, not corn syrup or other sweeteners) comes from sugar cane (about 20% comes from sugar beets), which is actually a grass.  A grass that can grow really, really tall.

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Sugar cane in mid-summer.  Tall, but still with some growing to do.

In some growing areas of the world where the cane has a longer season, it flowers.  Wow! Not in south Louisiana as the cane must be harvested before it freezes.  Harvest time, or “grinding,” starts around the beginning of September.

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Harvested cane in carts await unloading at M. A. Patout sugar mill in Patoutville, LA.

Cane is cut, loaded into carts or large (18-wheeler) trucks, and brought to the mill. In years past, the cane would be burned after cutting and before loading in order to remove the leaves. Fortunately, newer harvesting techniques results in “billet” cane which is chopped shorter during the harvesting process – eliminating most (but not all) of the need for burning the cane.  It may be a pretty sight, but it does put a lot of smoke and soot into the air.

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Burning fields at dusk between Lydia and Patoutville, LA

Anyone driving on a two lane highway in south or central Louisiana knows to “watch out for the cane trucks!” because they do tend to move more slowly than regular traffic. A pet peeve of mine is the folks who zoom around them recklessly or who complain about the trucks.  What, you’re late for work?  You should know better this time of year, and the person driving the truck is at work already.

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Sterling Sugars in Franklin, LA

Sugar mills are where the cane is crushed, juice is extracted, then boiled down to yield sugar crystals (and molasses).  Sounds simple? Well…the idea is simple, but sugarmaking is as much of an art as it is a science.  But first things first.  Cut the cane, load it, haul it to the mill and unload it there.

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A truck filled with cane arrives at Cajun Sugar Co-op, New Iberia, LA

Methods of unloading cane are pretty impressive.

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At Cajun Sugar, the truck body is lifted to dump the cane.

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Sometimes the entire truck is lifted!

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At Sterling Sugars in Franklin, LA, it’s a similar process.

But wait…I’m getting out of order a bit.  When the trucks arrive at the mill, they are weighed (they are weighed again after the cane is dumped).  A “core sample” is taken at that time as well.  Think giant hypodermic needle and you get the concept.

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The core sampler at Cajun Sugar.

The sample goes directly to the core lab where it will be analyzed for sugar content.  Samples are tracked by barcode, and the load-specific barcode is generated when the sample gets to the core lab. That info is tracked in the mill’s database so that each farmer can be paid properly. Pretty neat, huh? (I remember my grandfather at the mill, counting his truck arrivals – a common thing back then.)

Once the core sample is taken, the trucks are unloaded and the cane is stacked up in a massive yard.  From there it is transported into the mill for grinding.

cajunclaw

Not quite a “big ol’ rock candy mountain,” but a mountain of sugar cane.

The cane is chopped more before going into the mill.

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Between the cane yard and the actual mill.

On the way into the mill, the cane will be on a conveyer belt and “make a pass” under some giant magnets.  A stray piece of metal can mess up the mill, and possibly harm a mill employee.

Generally speaking, the cane will be chopped, smushed, macerated, and more or less rendered into mush/goo/yucky looking stuff and the juice extracted. Hence the term “grinding!”

But how does the juice from this overgrown grass become sugar?  Ahh, that’s the next segment of this series, as I’m now going to have a cup of coffee sweetened with raw sugar.  Stay tuned!

Note – all photos © B. D. Lowry; all rights reserved.  Please contact me for use.

Stay grateful, my friends.

Here it is, Thanksgiving Eve, and I’d like to say that I’ve written an insightful, well-thought-out, finely-crafted post on gratitude.

However… an outdoor fire and a margarita called my name. I’m weak, human, and subject to temptation. Instead of writing, I sat around said fire with the margarita, family and friends, and a Sonic hamburger (and mosquitoes).

We’ve much to be grateful for in the simple things.  So instead of writing, I thought I’d just share some photos of just a few of the many everyday things I’m grateful for.

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An evening walk with my dog.

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The August flooding didn’t get bad at all here.

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Planting cane.

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This little guy by my office. Fortunately, he’s not far from home.

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Bird sanctuary at Avery Island, Louisiana.  Yep, I’m 15 minutes away from where they make Tabasco.

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Sugar cane, by home.

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Harvest time, hauling cane to the mill.

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This little fella by my kitchen door. He sings, too.

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A route in Pecan Island, Louisiana.

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Rain for the cane. (Sugar cane fields)

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Sunset seen from my front porch.

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The view on my morning walk to work.

Life is filled with challenges, trials, fearful things, obstacles and broken dreams.  There will always be an unsoothed ache, a hidden hurt, a lost chance.

Thankfully, there will also be more beauty, chances, hope and love in life, in plain sight, waiting for us to grab it, share it, celebrate it.  The choice of where to look is up to us, and I prefer to see the beauty and hope in the world.

Stay grateful, my friends.

Armor of God

I recently met a lovely woman, V, in a centering prayer group. The group meets during my workday, but I attend occasionally when I can slip out for a while. While the group attendance fluctuates, we stay connected through the internet. I, a newcomer, have been welcomed with love, open arms and many emails.

During the recent flooding here in south Louisiana, several group members’ homes were flooded; V’s was one of them.  I’d only met her a few times, but my heart went out to her, as to so many.  Flood recovery is a wet, stinky, moldy, yucky mess and there are no words that accurately describe it. Part of the process of post flood repair is replacing soaked sheetrock.  The ruined parts are cut out, exposing the studs and timbers beneath. An email went out with a request from V to send scripture verses that would be written on the exposed beams before covering them again.

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I thought of the V’ahavta:

 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. ~Deut. 6: 4 – 9

Favorite verses were shared, then an invitation – Monday, we’ll gather at her home to help write these verses on the exposed beams.

Monday arrived, and a small group of us had gathered.  We waited, but V never appeared.  One member tried calling, but got her voice mail. Well, phones and voice mail had been very messed up since the flooding, and we just thought that something had come up or AT&T had freaked out. Plan for another day.

Later that afternoon, I heard a news story on the radio that a car had crashed through the wall and into a local post office.

My phone began buzzing with emails.  V wasn’t at her house because she had been at the post office when the car crashed.  She had been pinned between the car and a desk, both of her legs broken.  We stormed the gates of heaven with prayer, waited for news of her surgeries – and continue to pray.

a-glass

Then, in the middle of this, I read a blog post from Beauty Beyond Bones; she is a young woman with a history of an eating disorder.  Prayer and Divine help got her beyond the bleakness of her deadly illness and into recovery.  In her post, she described how her identity had been stolen recently, and spoke of Ephesians 6 – about putting on the full armor of God.  Sometimes you need it!

What is it with these obstacles that fall into the way when one is seeking to fulfill Divine Purpose?  Is it “Satan trying to mess things up?” Or is it something within one’s self, deeply hidden in the unconscious mind that fears and hinders forward movement? I have heard both explanations – and all in between.

If I look at the first option, then “it’s not my fault.” It is something completely beyond my control, and I am a helpless, powerless victim.

If I consider the second, “it’s ALL my fault, but I don’t want this!” Yet on some deep unconscious level I must invite failure. I am responsible for my own downfall.  Gee, I have a lot of power, don’t I?  (haha)

Neither extreme makes much sense to me. It is probably the oldest question ever asked: Why do bad things happen to good people?  Well, we don’t know.  Sometimes, sh*t just happens.

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In spite of everything, God’s world is still a beautiful place.

Perhaps instead of trying to figure it out and control the outcome, we can just roll with the punches.  When you think about it, no matter what you believe, your response can be the same:  Get up, show up, keep going. Don’t stopPut on the full armor of God, and lean on the Spirit which is greater than us and keep going. You – alone – will sooner or later run out of steam, but if you tap into God’s love and power, you have an infinite source. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to risk it alone.

Somehow, some way, it will work out – and usually in a way that surprises us.  It may not be the way we would have chosen, but sometimes we have an outcome that is more amazing than we ever could have imagined.

Why do bad things happen to good people? I know I won’t get the answer anytime soon, and I’m not even looking for it anymore because I don’t think we can understand the answer (at least not in this lifetime). We cannot understand with our minds, but with our hearts and our souls.  Such things are of faith, and not of reason. I am inspired and deeply moved by faith such as V’s.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
~ 1 Corinthians 13: 11 – 13

Faith. Hope. Love. This is what the armor of God is forged of.  Put it on, and – like V, and  Beauty Beyond Bones – keep going.

How’d y’all do?

“How’d y’all do?”

It’s a query I hear (and use) often.  I ask my husband that when he calls from the boat landing after a day of fishing.  He’ll ask a friend that about their hunting.  Someone played football/softball whatever? Had a garage sale? Got through a hurricane, flood, tornado, storm?

How’d y’all do?

No one in Louisiana has had to ask what that question’s been about this past week Everyone around here knows about the insane amount of rainfall this past weekend.

Breaux Bridge

Aug. 13, 2016 in Breaux Bridge, La.  This was high ground.

A shrug, a slow head nod. “Did ok.  Lotta water in the yard/garage/shop/street but the house is OK.”

A shrug, a sigh, a slow head shake.  “Well, not so hot.  Everything flooded. House, cars.”

Then, there are the stories about someone waking up in the night, getting out of bed and realizing they’re in water up to there.  Or the folks who had to climb into the attic and out of a window, or hack a hole in the roof.  It’s a sickening feeling, watching the water rise and knowing there’s not a blasted thing you can do about it.  Been there, done that, no fun.

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We’ve had high water before…

On the other hand, there are the stories of kindness.  Travelers stranded on the highways for hours were cared for by people living nearby.  Not just water and snacks, but home cooked jambalaya, red beans, etc.  When in doubt, bring food.  People helping neighbors and strangers.  Perhaps that’s why there hasn’t been a lot of national news on this story; Cajuns (and “adopted Cajuns”) know how to fend for themselves and each other.  Just do a quick search for “Cajun Navy” and you’ll see what I mean.

Yes, there is a certain amount of “self determination” and self-sufficiency in that, and this isn’t always seen as politically correct.  Too bad.  It’s what we do, it’s what many people do in Louisiana and beyond. It’s common human decency, although if you watch the news too much you may become convinced that this no longer exists.  It does, though, and is out in full force this week as everyone does whatever they can to help someone else who’s dealing with the flood aftermath. Self sufficiency doesn’t mean all alone; it means that there are people around you who will help – just as you help them when the need arises.

We did OK.  Family, house, business, staff, all ok.  Too many other folks we know – not all so good.  We’re on high ground (relatively speaking in south Louisiana) but a lot of folks live in new subdivisions that were “not in a flood zone” – and therefore don’t have flood insurance because no one ever dreamed they’d flood.

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Cane fields don’t usually look like rice fields…

I read today that the equivalent of one and a half Lake Ponchartrains fell on Louisiana within a few days. That’s a lot of water.

So what are we doing?  What we always do.  Back to work, do what you can to help wherever you can, swat the mosquitos, and be grateful.  Oh, and bring food.

How’d y’all do?

Shrug.  We’ll get there. We always do.

onward

Want to help Louisiana and show some love?  New Iberia artist Paul Schexnayder has designed a print that expresses the resilience of Louisiana, and ALL proceeds go to the Community Foundation of Louisiana Disaster Relief Fund.  The 11 x 14 print is $45 and the T-shirt is $20, and comes in adult and youth sizes.  I love how Paul’s work shows hope and joy in even the darkest of circumstances.  To order, or for more information, look up Paul on facebook or find him via his website.

Hurricane Rita: Ten Years

Ten years ago, hurricane Rita (“the forgotten hurricane”) tore through southwest Louisiana. It was only 3 weeks after hurricane Katrina had captured national attention.  Katrina had slammed New Orleans and coastal areas to the east; obliterating coastline communities throughout Mississippi and Alabama. Rita took care of the rest of Louisiana (and southeast Texas as well).

A few weeks before Katrina was even a blip in the Atlantic, I had pulled out a song I’d written after a concert at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Biloxi, Mississippi. This area had been hard hit in 1969 by Hurricane Camille, a storm of legend, and the church (which was situated right across the highway from the Gulf) had been destroyed in that storm.  Only the bell tower remained, and photos were on display in the parish hall. The song, Wall of Water, was one that my band, Blue Merlot, agreed was one to include on a CD we were planning.

A few weeks later, Katina hit.  Then Rita.  Our CD project was delayed in a big way.  Eventually, though, it was recorded.  Even later, we pulled together bits of video recorded (some months after Rita) and hurricane photos for a video:

A wall, a wall of water, 30 feet high…where you gonna run to when the sea becomes the sky?

Faith…and Prayers for Lafayette and all of Acadiana

One week ago, a madman opened fire in a theater in Lafayette, La., killing 2 people and injuring others before killing himself. I don’t often use hashtags, but #AcadianaStrong #LafayetteStrong and #PrayforLafayette strikes home because yes, this is home, and people and families from throughout the Acadiana area were deeply affected.  I’ve been to that theater, and have brought my children there over the years as well. AcaianaStrong

The day before the shooting, my daughter and I shared latte and conversation at Johnston Street Java, a coffee shop in the parking lot of the Grand.  I (and everyone I know) share connections to those shot, and we are all shell-shocked, grieving, and wondering why. Reasoning and political posturing (which isn’t always reasonable) fly in the aftermath.  I would like to think we all agree that we want a peaceful society. 

Sometimes, though, I wonder. Do we really, really want a peaceful society?  If the answer is yes, then why do we worship violence through our choices of entertainment? Consider the changes in Hollywood over the past several decades.  Violence is invited into homes on a daily basis, and not just through the news.  Millions flock to movie theaters, and Hollywood glorifies violence in ever-increasing graphic, sometimes even sadistic, detail.  Many video games encourage participation in bloodlust.  Numerous actors, directors and others who make their living (often a very, very good living) in the movie industry call for gun control, but then don’t live their convictions. hollywood gun glory

If you want to make a difference, please start by setting an example.  As for the rest of us, we don’t have to patronize movies or other media that glamorize violence.  If enough people feel that way, profits for such media will shrink, and its presence will diminish.

Another point to ponder:  If we really want a peaceful society, then why are we becoming more and more of a secular one, afraid to touch anything that might bear the hint of religion or spirituality? We are, still, a nation of laws, and there are basic laws of God and nature that must be upheld.  Thou shalt not commit murder.  Thou shalt not steal.  The strengths of these truths are watered down by a constant barrage of violent images and messages coming at us on television, in movies, games, music, online, etc.

I don’t think there’s any single or simple answer to this violence.  Humans are flawed, and some choose evil.  Those who would commit evil can find a way to do so regardless of whatever laws there are to prevent them.  Evil can use anything as a weapon, be it a gun, homemade bomb, club, car or airplane. The rage of a madman exploded in an act of violence that took the lives of two shining, vibrant young women and rocked the souls of an entire region. Prayers4Lafayette

But I know that there’s something in this region, in our Louisiana culture that comes through in every disaster we face. It may not be unique in the world, but it’s more important today than ever before: Faith.  Over 250 years ago, the Acadians were forcibly removed without warning from their homes in Nova Scotia. Families were separated, all property and land was taken, and the Acadian people were literally shipped across sea and land. Many were removed and displaced several times over decades before finally finding a place to settle. LoveLaf In most cases, they could bring nothing with them – except their faith.  No Crown, no government, no soldiers or guns or threats or ships could strip that away, and they clung fiercely to God and to each other. Generations later, we still turn first to God in times of need, regardless of religious denomination. Our ancestors learned that no one can take faith away from you.  It may be shaken, it may be temporarily misplaced, but no one can take it away.  Not hurricanes, not economic disasters, not oil spills.

Not even a madman.

As the eyes across the nation and beyond focus on Lafayette and all of Acadiana, I hope they can see and sense our prayers, our faith, our trust in God. Tonight there is a concert and gathering in Lafayette for strength, prayer, hope, music and togetherness.  For every person in attendance, there will be countless more who cannot be there physically but are present in prayer and spirit. And yes, we feel, and deeply and humbly appreciate, the prayers from around the world.

I think of the song Let There Be Peace on Earth.  We all want peace on earth, as impossible as it may seem at times.  The lyrics “…let it begin with me” resonate with more truth than ever, for where else can peace begin but with the individual? The response of Emanuel Church in Charleston give us a beautiful example of this. As we all wonder why, and what can I do, the answers come back to those answers known for generations, entwined in our DNA. Keep faith, pray, and know that the first step in achieving peace on earth lies with each one of us.