On this farm in Angola, the workers have nothing but time and the process is about as low-tech as you can get: using a mule to turn the gears of a small sugarcane grinder, smashing a few stalks at a time and squeezing out the sugary juice. Nearby, a 1950s John Deere tractor provides some additional horsepower for a second grinder. This one devours its pile of cut sugarcane at a faster pace.
This mill came from an old sugar refinery that stood on this site until the 1970s.
“They sold it to a company in Guatemala in the 70s,” said Burl Cain. “I wish they would have left the tower, the chimneys, so we would still have it today.”
Cain is warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the site of an old sugar plantation, and now a large prison farm where inmates, most of them serving life sentences, can handle the slower pace of this old-time routine.
“[The work] gives the inmates a chance to change their lives and to rehabilitate morally,” Cain said. “And so we really do that now because we can't help what's already happened, and I have great compassion for victims. But we can help prevent future victims.”
The prisoners cultivate about an acre of sugarcane each year, and that's enough to grind and cook about 100 gallons of syrup for the prison museum and gift shop. Even the syrup boiler relies on manual labor to fuel the fire.
“It's the old-fashioned way, and that's what everyone really likes to see,” said Adam Oliveaux. “It's more of a seeing thing than an efficient way.”
Oliveaux works in maintenance at the prison, and he oversees the annual syrup making. As the cane juice starts to steam, the skimming begins.
“They are actually skimming the impurities and the trash off the top,” he said. “And that's going to be the first thing that comes to the top, and it's going to come to a boil, and when it comes to a boil and comes to the side, we will actually skim that and clean it up.”
As the juice boils, it will thicken.
“Evaporate all of the water out of it, and all of the bacteria out of it and turn it into syrup,” Oliveaux said.
The real payoff comes after an hour and a half of boiling, when some of that dark cane syrup is put on a homemade biscuit. But it's more than creating a tasty item for the gift shop.
“These inmates like doing this,” Cain said. “It's a break from what they normally do, and it's a fun time really to everybody.”
And it's also a chance to see the process of taking a crop from the field to the market from a time when manpower, horsepower and even mule power were needed to do the job.
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