Charley Richard shares a lifetime of sugar knowledge, from cane to beets – Agweek
About half of the sugar grown in the United States comes from sugar beets and the other half from sugar cane. Sugar, or sucrose, is a carbohydrate found naturally in fruits, vegetables and other agricultural crops, but at higher levels in sugar beets and sugar cane. While beet and cane sugar are the same, the two plants are very different. Few know the two cultures as well as Charley Richard (pronounced Ree-shard) of New Orleans, Louisiana, who works on both the beet and cane side of the American sugar industry.
Richard grew up on the Greenwood and Orange Grove plantations near Thibodaux, Louisiana, which were both owned by Southdown Sugars. His father was a farmer and plantation overseer for the company, and his grandfather was a mechanic. Richard’s favorite childhood memories include riding a bicycle through the sugar cane fields, fishing in the canals and riding a mule-drawn plow.
Richard’s father worked outdoors year round in the heat and cold. After graduating from high school, her mother suggested she pursue accounting or some other profession in an air-conditioned building.
“However, I chose to go into farming, knowing it was my calling,” Richard said. “I was determined to work to make life easier and more efficient for sugar cane growers through better varieties and management practices.”
Richard received a Bachelor of Science in Plant Science from Nicholls State University at Thibodaux in 1970. He went on to earn a Master of Science in 1972 and a Ph.D. in Agronomy in 1975 from Louisiana State University. Richard worked in the sugarcane breeding program there and wrote a thesis titled “Genetic Inheritance of Sugarcane Sucrose Content”.
“I quickly recognized that the sugar industry was really unique because it was so different in every way from all the other cultures I studied in school,” he said. “The uniqueness of sugar cane genetics, planting and cultivation practices, harvesting techniques and equipment used have made working in this industry even more attractive.”
In 1977 Richard left the LSU sugar cane breeding program and began working as an agronomist with the American Sugar Cane League.
“It was much more to my liking because I was still working in the breeding program but I was employed by industry rather than government,” Richard said.
When Richard’s mentor and boss, Lloyd Lauden, retired in 1985, Richard was transferred to the post of director of research and field representative of the ASCL. In 1993, he became vice-president and director of research. Meanwhile, his work continued in the sugar cane breeding program with the increase in seed of potential new varieties. Richard has also studied a variety of other topics including cultural practices, fertilizer application, mechanical planting, mechanical harvesting improvements, cane quality improvement, cane payment systems, cane processing practices and sugar manufacturing. He worked alongside Tom Schwartz with the Sugar Beet Development Council and spent considerable time lobbying for additional research funding for sugar cane and beets.
“That’s when I started to learn about the sugar beet industry and how it was both different and similar to cane,” Richard said.
In 2001, Richard left his position at ASCL and founded a consulting firm called C. Richard & Associates.
“Some of my early efforts were to develop energy as well as sugar from sugarcane. One of them, in Brawley, California, was a sugarcane production project in the desert with sugar beets and both would have been processed in the same modernized facility,” he said. “Over a period of several years, we had successfully produced over 200 acres of sugar cane, including a large part was producing high yields. This was considered a successful conclusion for my part of the project, but unfortunately there was not enough interest at the plant to move the project forward.
During the project in Brawley, Richard worked with sugar beet growers Larry Fleming, Craig Elmore and Carson Kalin to produce the cane.
“The project was rewarding and fun. This involved groundbreaking efforts as nothing had been done before to show the way forward. New cultivation practices, irrigation techniques and fertilization practices had to be developed from scratch,” he said. “I learned a lot about the agricultural production of sugar beets as well as the processing practices that would be important in a combined cane/beet operation.”
Richard’s consulting work has also taken him to Central and South America. He has worked with sugarcane growers in Guyana on the construction of a new sugar mill and helped establish several hundred acres of heritage varieties of organic sugarcane in Belize to be used for rum production.
In 2007, he was asked to take over the post of General Manager of the Sugar Research and Processing Institute on a part-time basis. SPRI is a private, not-for-profit, international research organization specializing in process improvement in the sugar cane and sugar beet industries. It is one of the few, and perhaps the only, research organization that works with both sugar cane and sugar beet. SPRI is working to bring about improvements in beet and cane processing, and recent projects have focused on the nature of cane and beet colorants, beet sugar odors, and the production of products alternatives from sugar.
In 2013, Richard accepted a request to also manage the New York Sugar Trade Laboratory on a part-time basis.
“The primary function of this lab is to perform third-party testing on raw sugar imported into the United States. The lab also tests the quality of raw sugar as well as molasses and edible syrups,” Richard said. “Sometimes we are asked to test samples of refined sugar as well as beet molasses products.”
Richard is passionate about sharing a lifetime of sugar knowledge. He is a program coordinator and teacher at the International Sugar Institute at Nicholls State University and has authored over 400 publications on a wide range of sugar industry topics.
Richard’s wife, Romney Kriedt-Richard, is editor and publisher of Sugar Journal, a monthly technical publication distributed to an international sugar industry audience. The couple’s respective work in the sugar industry has taken them to 33 US states and 46 countries.
Richard has seen many changes in the industry over his career.
“When I started, we didn’t have personal computers or hand calculators. A lot of things that we have become accustomed to now, like any record keeping or factory automation, were not possible,” he said. “One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is just in our ability to manage data and use it to improve agricultural and industrial operations in the cane and beet industries.”
Richard predicts that the combination of satellites and artificial intelligence will enable continued improvement in the US sugar industry in the future.
“When I was young, low-horsepower tractors using single-row equipment and small implements were the norm. It took more than 50 man-hours to produce a ton of sugar in Louisiana. of six and will continue to decline as we see increased automation in the industry,” he said. “Factory operations, while using almost the same practices, have improved significantly thanks to to more efficient equipment and a better understanding of technologies that improve sugar recovery in both industries.”
The future is bright and Richard strongly encourages young people to consider a career in the sugar industry.
“Anyone who wants to work in sugar must first realize how family-oriented the international sugar industry is. I would advise them not to skip the basics. Find out the story and how the industry got to where it is today,” he said. “From a pedagogical point of view, it also means taking courses that young people sometimes do not consider important. Chemistry, statistics, intermediate metabolism, and basic engineering can all help provide some of these core concepts to provide a solid foundation for a successful career.
The best part of his career is the people, according to Richard.
“Over the years we have made many friends from all over the world who we love to see at every opportunity,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of them thrive and then retire, and then we’ve met the new and younger people in their jobs. This is very encouraging, because we see this as one of the assets for the future of the sugar industry.