History of Sugarcane Research in Louisiana

Linda Benedict, Gravois, Kenneth  |  6/22/2012 7:25:54 PM

Kenneth Gravois

“Gentlemen, remember that whenever humanity broods over a problem, sooner or later it will be solved. Combine and concentrate your efforts in a first-class experiment station, and you will find the difficulties now encountered in sugar making, before its investigations,‘melting away, like streaks of morning light, into the infinite azure of the past.’”

– William Carter Stubbs, May 1885, Address to the Louisiana Sugar Planters Association

The Louisiana sugar industry needed innovation. The industry needed science.

In 1795, Etienne de Boré and Antoine Morin were able to granulate sugar from sugarcane on de Boré’s plantation in New Orleans – and the Louisiana sugar boom began. In 1806, Governor William Claiborne of the Territory of Orleans would write a letter to President Thomas Jefferson that included this statement: “The facility with which the sugar planters amass wealth is almost incredible.” Sugar production and its associated wealth continued to climb until the Civil War intervened.

Louisiana sugar planters faced many challenges in the post-Civil War era, namely competition from beet sugar and science – both flourishing in Europe at the time. The Louisiana Sugar Planters Association was formed in November 1877 by prominent sugar planters, such as Duncan Kenner and John Dymond. The association’s mission was to secure favorable federal legislation through sugar tariffs and to promote the application of science to a struggling Louisiana sugar industry.

The primary push to establish a sugarcane experiment station in Louisiana can be traced to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Harvey Wiley. Wiley, chief chemist for the state of Indiana, had worked with prominent sugar chemists in Europe and was a proponent of efforts to promote science and the introduction of new sugar producing technologies. The effort to secure the involvement of science in the Louisiana sugar industry culminated in a May 1885 meeting of the Louisiana planters’ group, where William Carter Stubbs of the Alabama Experiment Station presented a stirring speech.

Inspiration galvanized into action. In preparation, the Louisiana planters raised $60,000 and obtained a lease for the Schulze Plantation in Kenner, where the newly formed Sugar Experiment Station would operate for its first two years. They hired Stubbs in late summer 1885. Stubbs, a Virginian educated at William & Mary and the University of Virginia, sprang into action.

The Louisiana Scientific Agriculture Association, chartered on October 20, 1885, would serve to oversee the Louisiana Sugar Experiment Station. The station’s purpose was “to develop and improve the agricultural interests and resources of Louisiana, especially the cultivation of sugarcane and rice by scientific and agricultural and chemical experiments and to disseminated information connected therewith.” Louisiana Sugar Planters Association officials hoped the state would later help support this effort and planned for a legislative push for funds in 1886.

Stubbs established sugarcane plantings of research areas in October 1885 to systematically investigate means of increasing sugar yields. With a background in chemistry and soils, Stubbs was uniquely qualified to analyze both plants and soils. Experiments were initiated to determine how manures could enrich soils and what form of nitrogen was most beneficial to the sugarcane plant. He also wanted to determine if surface drainage was adequate drainage or if tiles would be necessary.

This inaugural effort at establishing a research station was not without its problems. By the fall of 1886, the Louisiana Sugar Experiment Station operated under a deficit of funding. In February 1886, the Louisiana Board of Agriculture established an experiment station on Louisiana State University property in Baton Rouge. To placate concerns of the north Louisiana legislators, the Calhoun Experiment Station was also established. By the summer of 1886, Stubbs had signed a contract with the commissioner of agriculture whereby he was appointed official state chemist, director of the State Experimental Stations and professor of agriculture at LSU. Stubbs would remain in New Orleans and manage a budget that included local support from sugar planters, state funds and federal funds from the Hatch Act of 1887, which provided federal funds to states for their agricultural experiment stations. This three-way partnership would pay dividends for many years to come.

In 1888, USDA assistance enabled Stubbs to test more than 70 different sugarcane varieties obtained overseas by U.S. consuls. In 1893, Stubbs received 500 sugarcane seedling varieties from the Royal Agricultural Society of Demerara in the colony of British Guiana, now Guyana. These 500 varieties were developed from true seed that was obtained from Barbados. From this evaluation, varieties D74 and D95 were obtained and increased on local plantations. In a report to the Louisiana Sugar Planters Association, Stubbs remarked that no single experiment increased sugar production as did the introduction of exotic varieties of sugarcane – the variety boom had begun.

Stubbs’ vision for agricultural research was not limited to production agriculture. He felt that manufacturing and diffusion process trials should also be conducted. In 1891, the Audubon Sugar School was established at the Sugar Experiment Station in Audubon Park in New Orleans. The school closed in 1896 but was reestablished on the LSU campus in 1897 under the direction of Charles E. Coates, who would serve as its dean. The Audubon Sugar School became renowned for training sugar factory technicians from around the world in sugar processing techniques.

The USDA was an active cooperator with the Sugar Experiment Station, which was selected for a $10,000 federal grant in the early 1890s to explore the use of diffusion technologies for sugar extraction in sugarcane. Throughout the 1890s, the USDA and Louisiana Sugar Experiment Station collaborated on such programs as seed cane and beet sugar studies, tea cultivation and the investigation of fiber decorticating machines.

The sugarcane borer, first noted in St. John Parish in 1855, was a particularly destructive pest of sugarcane and presented many problems to raw sugar processors. The Sugar Research Station had an Entomology Department, and J.H.A. Morgan performed detailed investigations into the biology and management of both the sugarcane borer and sugarcane beetle.

Guiding the Louisiana Sugar Experiment Station from 1885-1905, William Carter Stubbs proved a popular and effective director.

The work of the Sugar Experiment Station, now part of the LSU campus at Baton Rouge, once again came to the forefront in the 1920s as a part of a continuing three-tiered research front. The American Sugar Cane League was chartered on September 28, 1922, by the consolidation of the Louisiana Sugar Planters Association, American Cane Growers Association, and the Producers and Manufacturers’ Protective Agency. A local USDA presence began in 1919, and the USDA Sugarcane Research Laboratory was established in 1923 in Houma. Within LSU, William G. Taggart and C.B. Gouaux participated in the evaluation of POJ (from Java) and CO (from India) sugarcane varieties in an effort to replace disease-ridden sugarcane varieties. A field day was held on July 20, 1926, at the Sugar Experiment Station to showcase the foreign varieties and new seedling varieties derived from intercrossing of two different sugarcane varieties.

One hindrance to sugarcane breeding in Louisiana was the plant’s lack of flowering because of low fall temperatures. St. John P. Chilton, plant pathologist and sugarcane breeder for the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station, established artificial photoperiod schedules that would allow sugarcane to flower in Louisiana. This groundbreaking research was carried out in photoperiod facilities on the LSU campus. Now sugarcane crossing could be conducted locally instead of relying on facilities in Canal Point, Fla.

Preston Dunkleman and Richard Breaux initiated recurrent selection sugarcane breeding methods in the mid-1950s that led to the development of high sucrose varieties, such as L 60-25, L 62-96 and L 65-69. The L in the name stands for Louisiana. Strains of the mosaic virus were becoming increasingly problematic. Pathologists and breeders devised a basic sugarcane breeding program in an effort to capture disease-resistant alleles from wild sugarcane clones from Saccharum spontaneum. Dunkleman joined USDA to lead that effort, which continues to pay dividends for today’s sugarcane breeders in Louisiana.

Freddie Martin, a researcher who went on to become director of the School of Plant, Environmental & Soil Sciences before his retirement in 2010, led a team effort for the development of LCP 85-384. The CP in the name stands for Canal Point. This variety was high yielding and possessed excellent cold tolerance and stubbling ability. Its popularity increased until its acreage peaked in 2004 when it was grown on 91 percent of the Louisiana sugarcane acreage. This progress continued under Kenneth Gravois and Keith Bischoff, both students of Martin, as they ushered in a return of L varieties into the Louisiana sugar industry.

Sugarcane research continues today within the LSU AgCenter, bolstered by rich tradition and continuing cooperative efforts. While the names may change, the mission is much the same. Leading with science, the goal of AgCenter research and extension programs is to sustain a Louisiana sugar industry that has been the backbone of the south Louisiana economy for more than 200 years.

“The Louisiana sugar industry is a creature of government protection; and even this protection will prove insufficient to sustain it unless it be aided by all of the resources of modern science.”

Joseph L. Brent in a January 1878 address to the Louisiana Sugar Planters Association from a paper entitled, “The Necessity of Science to a Just Development on the Sugar Culture.”

Kenneth Gravois, Sugarcane Specialist, Sugar Research Station, St. Gabriel, La.

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