The mill was founded by the Plata Sugar Company, a corporation created in 1910 by a group of Puerto Rican businessmen. The construction of the mill and the railroads that connected the factory and the fields was begun in 1911 with capital of $1,600. In its first year, only 40 sharecroppers supplied cane and it pressed some 1,500 tons, which made it a medium-sized mill.
In 1948, the administration of the mill undertook a big effort to reduce the costs of production, particularly by trying to mechanize, as much as possible, the operations in the field, as well as in the factory. The improvements, which rose to cost nearly a million dollars, consisted of the implementation of five presses, four calderas, a steam engine, new centrifuges and other equipment. With these improvements, the mill was able to increase its daily capacity and accept cane from a larger number of farmers.
They also tried to increase production in the field by incorporating new techniques. Although the train was used from the beginning to transport cane to the mill, a large portion of the work was still done by hand, such as cutting and collecting the cane. This changed in the late 1950s, when an automated system of moving the cane was put in place. Piles of cane were collected by a machine that carried them to cranes or directly to the mill.
The plans to mechanize the transportation of cane ran into problems, however, due to the rugged topography of the terrain, which meant that the conventional equipment could not work efficiently. Also, many farmers did not produce enough cane to make the system of cranes necessary.
In 1952, the Plata Central mill had a record harvest. Some 1,600 farmers provided 557,700 tons of cane that were pressed in the mill. However, from that moment on, the island's sugar industry experienced a rapid decline. In 1953, the Plata mill processed 415,000 tons of cane because of a reduction in the export quota imposed by the United States government in 1934 through the Jones Act. The law was intended to ensure an orderly and adequate flow of sugar to consumers in the United States market. The quota was based on the average of the five most recent harvests at a mill, which meant that 150,000 and 160,000 tons of cane went unprocessed. This restriction markedly affected the growers, who had increased their crops in recent years.
This situation, which lasted for several years, caused a halt to the renovations, a reduction in planting of cane and a decline in the quality of the cane. At that point, the management felt obligated to operate only the farms it owned and others it leased, and many independent growers were forced to abandon sugar cane production.
In 1955, efforts were made to increase production per acre through the application of new agricultural techniques, such as renewing fields and planting new varieties. As none of the remaining independent growers were in a condition to undertake these kinds of renovations, the Growers Services Department was created to offer technical advice on selecting new varieties of cane and adapting to new growing practices. It also provided the machinery and equipment needed to prepare the fields. These changes were reflected in an increase in the amount of cane pressed. In 1966, the mill pressed 670,295 tons of cane and produced 64,527 tons of sugar, which made it the most productive harvest in the mill's history.
This turned out to be a temporary solution, however, because over time, the losses increased and it became more difficult to reduce the costs of production. Because of the situation, the Plata Central Sugar Mill was rented by the Puerto Rico government and in 1976 was purchased by the government. The mill continued operating at a deficit until it finally ceased operations in 1996.
Adapted by the PROE Editorial Group
Original source: Central Plata: su historia y desarrollo, Puerto Rico Sugar Board.
Autor: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 13, 2010.