Plantations Disappearing from Louisiana Delta

KNOXVILLE — The traditional sugar plantation has been all but erased from the Louisiana landscape it once dominated, a victim of a new management model and changing economic conditions, a University of Tennessee geography professor said in his new book.

Dr. John Rehder documents the radical transformation of Louisiana’s traditional sugar-growing region in “Delta Sugar,” just published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

“The introduction of the farmerless farm coupled with changes in federal policy toward sugar production have doomed the historic plantation,” Rehder said. “Much of the terrain is still devoted to sugar cane production, but the plantation structure that dates back to the middle of the 18th century is largely a thing of the past.”

In 1969, Louisiana had 1,687 sugar-producing farms, 202 of which were classic plantations. In 1993, the number of farms had dropped to 690 and the number of plantations was down to 82. Sugar mills fell from 44 to 19. Paradoxically, the acreage planted in sugar cane rose over the same period, he said.

Rehder, who earned his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University with a dissertation on the landscape of the state’s sugar-producing regions, revisited the plantations he had studied as a graduate student in the 1960s. He found that only one of the six plantations he had analyzed in depth remained intact; three others were in ruins and two had disappeared completely.

“Archaeologists were digging sites that I had analyzed as intact plantations just 20 years before,” he said.

The disappearance of the plantation landscape began in the 1970s, when a California agribusiness model was brought to Louisana by agricultural entrepreneurs. Though the new corporate model had failed by the 1990s, the changes in the landscape are permanent, Rehder said.