Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
MOWATA - This is what it all comes down to for rice farmers. After all the long days of applying chemicals and fertilizer, enduring bad weather, worry, paperwork, mechanical breakdowns and other frustrations, it’s time for harvest.
And unlike last year’s dismal harvest, reports are good from most farmers.
That’s the case for R&Z Farms in northern Acadia Parish.
The ‘R’ in R&Z Farms is for Keith Rockett and the ‘Z’ is for Doug and Dwayne Zaunbrecher. Also working on the farm are Keith’s son, Jonathan, and Dwayne’s sons, Nicholas and Michael.
Their first field cut an impressive 57 barrels an acre on July 31. The 42-acre field was one of five in the LSU AgCenter’s Verification Program. It was water-planted on March 13 with RiceTec hybrid FullPage 7321 at a seeding rate of 25 pounds per acre.
“It’s amazing how that rice tillers,” Jonathan said. “Of the 1,400 acres we have in rice, about 800 acres was planted with hybrids. We especially like it for our weaker ground.”
Doug said they have been buying chicken litter from the DeRidder area, and it seems to have boosted rice yields. He said some crawfish producers are convinced it increases their catch too.
They don’t second-crop any of their rice, preferring to go from first-crop harvest to crawfish production.
Most of the fields in R&Z Farms are within a 5-mile radius of the original farm where Keith and Jonathan live, although they have one farm north of U.S. Highway 190.
Their biggest weed problem is nutsedge, and it’s controlled with Permit or Permit Plus.
Jonathan said the all their seed was treated with Dermacor, so they didn’t have much of an insect problem. Disease pressure was light also this year.
It’s a totally different year disease-wise compared to 2019, Jonathan said. Last year, smut disease permeated the fields throughout the southern part of the state, but strangely it hasn’t been much of a problem this year.
Dwayne said just in case, all their rice is sprayed with fungicides. “Ten years ago, we didn’t think that had to be done but one year we learned differently.”
The LSU AgCenter has had test plots at the R&Z Farms since the year 2000.
Dr. Steve Linscombe, retired LSU AgCenter rice breeder, remembers when he first started his off-station research with the Rocketts and Zaunbrechers.
“The Rice Breeding Project planted the first off-station research location on R&Z Farms in 2001 so this year makes the 20th consecutive year that research has been conducted there.”
Since Linscombe’s retirement, Dr. Adam Famoso, LSU AgCenter rice breeder, has continued using the R&Z Farms.
Linscombe said the research location has been extremely beneficial to variety development efforts.
“Even though this location is only a few miles from the Rice Research Station, it provides a very different environment for evaluating experimental lines as potential new varieties. The soil type and disease spectrum are different. This makes this location an excellent source of data on yield potential, yield stability, grain quality and disease resistance which is precisely what is needed in making variety release decisions.”
Keith said he likes having the plots on the farm. “We think it’s good, and I don’t feel guilty calling the LSU AgCenter for advice.”
Jonathan said he values the LSU AgCenter’s expertise with County Agent Jeremy Hebert and Keith Fontenot with the LSU AgCenter Rice Verification Program because he knows the recommendations are not based on selling a product.
As it turns out, Jonathan and Jeremy attended McNeese at the same time, although they didn’t know each other then.
Jonathan said he looks forward to Jeremy’s consultations. “Half the time we talk about the rice, and half the time we talk about the garden.”
Jonathan and his wife, Candace, have a vegetable garden and they get help with sons Jaxson and Jude, ages 10 and 6, and daughter Juliana, age 4. They grow tomatoes, eggplant, squash, bell peppers and cucumbers to make 100 quarts of dill pickles every year.
Jonathan’s sister, Hannah, teaches at a small college in Washington near Seattle and a brother, Damian, is an engineer in Houston.
Jonathan’s father, Keith, grew up in Rayville on a cotton and soybean farm. He graduated from Louisiana Tech with a degree in animal husbandry, then went to work in the oilpatch with a well testing company. In the late 1970s, he married Gloria Casselmann from Acadia Parish whose father, Ludwig Casselmann, was a rice and cattle farmer.
Keith eventually decided to make a career change and start farming. He relied on his father-in-law to teach him how to grow a rice crop. “I knew nothing about rice, but I couldn’t have had a better teacher.”
Ludwig, who died in 1990 when Jonathan was 10, made a lasting impression on his grandsons and Keith.
As a boy, Jonathan learned to speak German from his mother. Doug said their grandfather insisted they learn German as soon as they could talk. “He would speak to us in German, and you had to learn it.”
And he said his mother, Hannah, also spoke to them in German.
Doug said Ludwig also taught himself to speak French so he could talk with his Cajun neighbors, many of whom could not speak English. “He knew enough to carry on a little conversation.”
Dwayne said he went with the family to Germany in the 1990s, and they met some of Ludwig’s relatives from the Kassel, Germany, area. “We actually stayed with his cousins. They told me ‘I can still hear the Kassel dialect in your German.’ ”
Dwayne said as a boy, he wasn’t sure what he would do for a living. He went to LSU-E for a couple years, but he started working with his grandfather in 1984. In addition to raising rice and cattle, they baled wheat straw to sell for use at racehorse tracks and on highway construction.
Dwayne’s sons work the grain bins and help with whatever comes up on the farm. He said he encouraged his oldest son, Michael, to go into engineering but he insisted on becoming a farmer. Michael did earn a master’s degree in business administration. Nicholas is nearing graduation from McNeese in ag business.
Dwayne and his wife, June, also have a daughter, Kathryn, who’s getting her master’s degree in business administration at Louisiana Tech.
Doug started with the farm in 1990. He and his wife, Marla, have a son, Hans, who’s a sophomore at Louisiana Tech majoring in construction management, and a daughter, Anya, a high school junior. Doug’s wife is a teacher in Iota.
Doug attended trade school for diesel mechanics, so his abilities are a good fit on the farm. He’s in charge of the operation’s trucking divison.
“Things have really changed a lot,” Doug said.
He recalls learning to drive a tractor without a cab, and he distinctly remembers being put to work by their grandfather in a field with Dwayne. “I think it took us all day to plow that 20-acre field with a 10-foot plow and a 12-foot plow.”
Doug said Ludwig would save chores for the weekend for him and Dwayne, and that included mixing feed, grown on the farm, for the milk cow. “We always had little projects. We definitely give him all the credit for being taught how to work at a young age.”
“I remember pulling red rice when I couldn’t see over the tops of the rice,” Dwayne said, recalling a memory as a 5-year-old boy. “He would get mad at me because I’d step on his heels because I didn’t want to get lost.”
He said his grandfather’s experience of dealing with the Depression had a lasting influence. “He taught me if I wanted something, I had to go out and get it.”
Dwayne said after Ludwig died, numerous cans of old nails were thrown away.
“When we tore down a barn, we pulled every nail and straightened it because we might need it if we built another barn.”
Doug remembers that too. “He’s 100% right on that. There might still be some old nails in the warehouse if you dig deep enough.”
Dwayne also remembers when someone would bring up the possibility of growing a different crop, his grandfather would tell him, “This is rice and cattle country.”
In those days, it was common to rotate cattle and rice on a field but now, he said, crawfish has replaced cattle.
The pandemic resulted in many crawfish producers losing customers this year when restaurants closed, but Dwayne said R&Z Farms maintained most of their business. They have a buyer who sells to customers on the East and West coasts, he said, and they supply restaurants, including many in north Louisiana from Shreveport to Rayville.
Dwayne said their catch was good, but prices fell early and didn’t rebound.
He said after a month, he realized it was necessary to catch crawfish early in the weekend to be able to meet a heavy weekend demand. ““It was crazy this year. We sold more crawfish the week after Easter than the week of Easter.”
This year, their crawfish boats were switched from cleated wheels to cage wheels. A neighbor, Patrick Bellard, fabricated the wheels that resemble squirrel cages, and don’t have the lugged cleats that dig into the soil. Instead of the deep ruts, the wheels leave shallower cuts in the field that can be repaired easily.
“You still get tracks, but they’re not busting through the clay pan,” Dwayne explained. “It’s much better than it was in previous years.”
He said the new wheels lose some traction, but there are ways to compensate for
that problem. Dwayne said a neighbor has been using the new wheel design for a couple years, and he notices a big improvement in the field conditions.
County Agent Jeremy Harper said the R&Z Farms’ is constantly working to improve. “They’re always interested in the latest and greatest, and they’re very progressive farmers.”
He said he’s worked with them on several projects. “They are a great, great family, and great farmers.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
DIDO – It’s a bright, warm summer morning in a field not far from this Vernon Parish community between Elizabeth and Pitkin.
A line of teenage boys tromp through the field, hefting 20-pound watermelons to each other in bucket brigade fashion until the melons are stacked in a trailer. Soon, you might see these emerald orbs sold out of a pickup on the side of a highway.
This crop is grown by Jason Green, one of several melon producers in the area of Beauregard, Vernon and Allen parishes. He has melon patches scattered around the Pitkin-Sugartown area. His largest field this year is 35 acres, and he needs a crew of 12-14 young men for harvest.
The drought and unseasonably cool weather in April and May this year has limited production so some fields will only get picked 4-5 times. “In a good year, you should be able to pull this field seven times.”
Jason wants night-time temperatures above 70 degrees. “Watermelons grow the most at night, and in the day is when they ripen.”
He said most groceries around here get their melons from south Texas where they are grown with drip irrigation, and they are picked before ripeness. “If you buy at a grocery store, chances are it’s not a high-quality melon.”
He refuses to irrigate, believing any moisture besides rain results in an inferior melon. “To keep the quality, I have to take whatever Mother Nature gives me.”
He was hoping that Tropical Storm Cristobal would have dropped a couple inches of rain on his fields but that didn’t happen.
He also doesn’t use pesticides because he said he doesn’t have much of an insect or disease problem, but he does use commercial fertilizer at planting.
Pigs, crows and racoons that eat the melons are a problem, he said.
Keith Hawkins, LSU AgCenter county agent in Beauregard Parish, said a grower was dealing with deer feeding on the melons, and the grower solved the problem by using lion manure, obtained from the Alexandria Zoo, as a repellent.
Hawkins said watermelons prefer sandy soil that drains well. “Heavy soil wouldn’t be good for watermelons.”
Jason said the area’s sandy soil with a pH close to neutral contributes to the quality of his product too.
Green rents his fields, and he only uses a field once every 7 years to allow the ground to replenish nutrients. “A watermelon takes more out of the ground than any other crop.”
Black plastic sheeting is used on the raised beds to hold moisture in the sandy soil, and to reduce growth of grasses.
He uses a few varieties. “I have a couple but I keep them to myself because of competition.” He will reveal that he relies on an old standy-by variety, Royal Sweet.
Most grocery store watermelons are good for several weeks, he said.
His watermelons start as seedlings grown in a greenhouse, then transplanted between March 25 and April 12. A late frost could set back planting., and he watches pecan trees for the green buds that tell him winter is gone.
His fields are planted at different times so he’ll have a good supply for much of the summer, and he saved a big field to supply the July 4 holiday demand.
Just as he expected, business for this year’s Independence Day was hectic but good. “It was crazy. We thought it was going to settle down but we’re blowing and going.”
Ripeness is critical for the sweetness. Jason said most groceries sell out-of-state melons picked long before they are ripe so they can withstand transport time and have longer shelf life.
Green said his watermelons are ready to be eaten right away because they are picked at peak ripeness, and they only have a shelf life of about a week. “That’s why we’re known for sweet watermelons.”
He looks for three things to indicate ripeness: What are those indicators? “The curl, the yellow belly and the sound it makes when you thump it. We don’t pick a watermelon unless it’s got all three signs.”
The curl is a small spiral stem growing opposite the stem where the melon is attached to the vine.
Green said it’s essential for the curl to be brown and shriveled. But Jason said this sign alone can’t be used for a ripeness indicator. “It will lie to you in a wet season.”
The second criteria: the melon has to have a yellowish tinge on the bottom. A yellow belly.
Finally, he said, a thump that rings with the correct sound provides another sign of ripeness confirmation. “It’s got to have a good deep bass sound.”
In comparison, a thump on a nearby melon that’s obviously not ripe gives a tone a few notes higher.
When the ripe melons are chosen, the platoon of melon tossers take to the field. The boys take turns slinging the melons to load a wagon that’s pulled slowly across the field. To keep the boys from getting tuckered out (tired arms are likely to drop watermelons) they rotate out after about 20 throws.
Green doesn’t have any trouble getting a work crew of 8-12 melon chunkers among local high school boys looking to make some money. He has a waiting list. “I have 20 kids wanting to work.”
Jason has been in the business for 21 years.
He went to McNeese on a baseball scholarship for 18 months. “My grades weren’t that good. I was having too much fun.”
He came home to Leesville to help his father, Mark Green, hang sheetrock.
Around 1998, he said his grandfather, the Rev. M.C. Green, suggested he plant a field of watermelons to make extra money. “I’d hang sheetrock by the day and pick watermelons at night.”
He sold his crop on the highways around Leesville, and the next year he landed a deal with Big Star Grocery from Many that stocked his melons in groceries in Zwolle, Many and Leesville. Each grocery took 200 melons twice weekly.
A couple years later, he met veteran watermelon farmer Corbett Gibson from Sugartown and they hit it off as partners for 15 years until Jason bought Gibson’s watermelon stand at the intersection of La. Highways 112 and 113 at Sugartown.
Jason said his wife, Jamie, who runs their stand at Leesville, has boosted sales considerably by promoting the watermelons on Facebook on the “Sugartown Watermelon Stand” page. “She’s the one who has boosted our sales. Facebook almost doubled our sales.”
Their stands also have tomatoes, squash and cucumbers, along with honey and mayhaw jelly. Their cantaloupes just ripened too.
When Jason pulls up with a load of melons, wholesale buyers are lined up to get a truckload for sales on the highways around southwest Louisiana.
“I can pull up with a load of watermelons and in an hour they’ll be gone. Fourth of July, there’s people parked all along the road.”
Watermelon vendors dot the roadsides throughout Louisiana. John Bordelon of Moreauville sells Sugartown watermelons in Avoyelles Parish, often on Louisiana Highway 1 in front of the LSU AgCenter Extension Office. He buys from another grower, David Noland, who raises melons near Pitkin, although he has bought some from Jason.
Bordelon said people are less likely to buy watermelons on a cloudy day. “On a good hot, humid Louisiana day, you can sell melons.”
He said he’s sold as many as 50 in one day.
County Agent Hawkins said a buyer should ask a few questions of a roadside seller --- like where the melons were grown, who was the grower and when were they picked –to make sure the fruit is genuine Sugartown.
Jason is fully aware that less scrupulous sellers falsely claim their product is from Sugartown, but he said there’s not a lot he can do about that. He said he’s gotten calls from as far away as the Carolinas about bogus Sugartown sellers.
“The one thing I can tell you, is to come to Sugartown, Louisiana, and you’ll get one from here.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
GRAND PRAIRIE – Paul LaFleur’s cattle operation is based on the land in St. Landry Parish where his grandfather farmed.
Paul has named his place, Hosea’s Cattle Farm, after his grandfather, Hosea LaFleur.
Paul started raising cattle in 1995.
After years of growing sweet potatoes, cutting grass on the interstate and working for a nursery company, he decided to get in the cattle business. “When I started out, I didn’t even have a tractor.”
Paul credits the late Ray Fontenot and his son, Tony, for teaching him things along the way.
“They helped me a lot.”
He said he learned much of what he knows about farming from his grandfather. “He never had a tractor. He farmed with horses and mules. He milked a cow until he was 76.”
Paul was 8 years old when his father died, and he lived with his grandparents starting at 13.
When he started his cattle enterprise, he gradually increased his herd. “I kept adding to it, what I could afford.” He started small with 5 cows. Then he borrowed money to buy 50 cows. When he paid off that loan, he bought 100 cows and the herd grew from there.
Paul said the biggest mistake cattle owners make is violating that old rule of buying low and selling high.
He said he’s watched novices pay as much as $3,500 for a cow-and its calf. “A real cattle producer knows you can’t make money at that.”
And then they compound their problems by buying new equipment, he said.
For Paul, persistence is essential. “You have to stay with it in the good times and the bad times.”
The past 3 months have not been a good time for the cattle business. The pandemic has caused meat processing plants to close because of virus outbreaks. That has led to a shortage on grocery store shelves in some areas. But cattle prices are down while retail prices are up considerably. Added to all of that is the decreased beef demand with restaurant closings.
“This caused cattle slaughter to fall significantly, seeing slaughter numbers in late April that were 35 percent below the previous year,” said Dr. Kurt Guidry, LSU AgCenter ag economist.
“This, in turn, caused large reductions in beef production which also fell by 34 percent from the previous year in late April.”
He said fed cattle prices, which began 2020 in the $120 to $125 per hundredweight range, fell below $100 in April. Calf prices across the United States that started the year at $160 to $170 per hundredweight fell to $140 by April.
But he said cattle slaughter and beef production have begun to rebound and become more normalized and the market has responded.
Guidry said prices will improve, but it will take a while for the backlog of slaughter-ready calves to move through the market.
He said calf prices in Louisiana have improved marginally with the latest prices reported for 500- to 600-pound steers ranging from $85 to $154 per hundredweight. “While we could see a small improvement from these levels, it is unlikely that we see significant improvement until sometime later this fall or into next year.”
Paul has a group of calves that he would have sold already if the pandemic hadn’t occurred. “I’ll hold on to them until the market gets better.” Of course, that means he’ll have to castrate them and invest in vaccinations.
“It’s a gamble. I knew if I sold them, I would have lost a lot of money.”
He vaccinates for pink eye, and he uses ear tags for flies, as recommended by his veterinarian,
Dr. Craig Fontenot from Evangeline Parish. “We use a different chemical every year. Whatever he tells me.”
He said he has a few individuals who buy single calves from him for butchering. That usually works well, but this year is different. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, lots of people have bought calves for their own beef supply and that means the custom slaughterhouses are considerably behind. Paul said the area slaughterhouse he uses is booked until October.
But Paul sells most of his cattle in a group. He said he has used video sales, but he finds he comes out ahead selling to one buyer who gives him a better overall deal.
Paul likes a Brahma bull on a Hereford cow to produce the highly desired F1 Tiger Stripe calves.
But a Brangus bull on an Angus cow makes a highly desirable calf, he said.
He segregates his cows by color and keeps them in separate pastures.
He doesn’t cut corners on bulls either. Paul relies on the famed J.D. Hudgins Brahma bulls from Hungerford, Texas. The Hudgins ranch has been in operation for more than 100 years.
For Brangus bulls, he relies on GENETRUST based in Lamar, Missouri. And for Angus bulls, he goes to Earl Lemoine in Moreauville.
One thing he is particular about is bulls with the genetics of producing low-birth weight calves so he doesn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to pull calves.
His calving season from January through March.
Bulls are put on cows for 3 months, starting in March. He tries to keep 25 cows per bull.
Paul also works at the Dominique’s Livestock Market every Tuesday, using a horse to move cattle from pens to the auction block. Occasionally he’ll see a good cow to add to his herd.
Paul said he’s gotten to the point that he’s ready to sell replacement heifers. “I never could sell them before because I needed them.”
Paul also sells hay. He figured out early that if he was going to be in the cattle business, he would have to be in the hay business to provide his cattle and to sell. “If I had to buy my own hay, there’s no way I’d make it.”
He rents adjacent land for hay production and grazing, and he has cows on pastureland near Prairie Ronde.
His hay operation produces about 5,000 round bales a year. To handle that kind of volume, he just bought a new cutter, a 17-foot GMD5251, that conveniently folds up for traveling down the road.
He has two hay trailers to carry 11 round bales without stacking them.
His favorite hay is bermudagrass, and he uses Alicia, Jiggs and Russell. Pasture planted in those hybrids have to be maintained with fertilizer and herbicides.
Paul said his most problematic weeds are johnsongrass, carpetgrass and especially vaseygrass.
Feral pigs damage his pastures in some areas. He has a friend who hunts the hogs and that helps control but not eliminate them.
He also has meadows of bahiagrass that doesn’t need fertilizer or herbicide, so maybe in the long run it’s more cost effective.
(Paul recalled during his days of cutting grass on the interstate, they actually harvested hay from the right-of-way along I-49. In addition to the problem of trash and debris in the grass, loading the hay next to a highway was a challenge, he said, so it wasn’t as practical as it might seem.)
His cattle have continuous access to hay. They also are given feed every morning. He buys the feed, containing corn, soybeans and cottonseed meal, from a feed mill in Mansura.
Calves have constant feed available to them in the pastures. The feed trailers are enclosed with fencing that allows entry for calves only.
Paul and his wife, Amy, have been married for 25 years. She works for the St. Landry Parish School Board They have a daughter, Taylor, who is attending LSU to become a project manager, and two sons, Joshua who works offshore and Jordan who’s in the tree-cutting business.
Paul and Amy have three grandchildren. “I’ve got one grandson (Jackson) who might take over the cattle.”
Paul figures even when he’s retired, he’ll still have a small herd of cattle.
He is a graduate of the Louisiana Master Cattleman Program. He praised the program for providing a wide range of information for anyone who raises cattle, regardless of their experience level.
“You don’t ever know everything,” he said, stopping to pick up a buttercup weed and explaining how he learned to control that plant from the Master Cattleman Program.
Paul didn’t volunteer the information, but his wife reminded him that he was named Louisiana Cattleman of the Year in 2006, and St. Landry Parish Cattleman of the Year in 2015.
Vince Deshotel, LSU AgCenter regional beef cattle specialist, said Paul has prospered because he keeps his overhead expenses low, and he takes a conservative approach. “He grew his operation from the ground up.”
He said Paul’s emphasis on good genetics has been an investment that’s paid off in the long run.
“He’s got a pretty good hay business,” Deshotel said. “He trades out equipment frequently so he doesn’t have a lot of down time.”
And he said Amy’s help at accounting lets Paul concentrate his efforts in the field.
Deshotel said cattle producers in general have a better outlook. Recent warm weather has boosted forage growth. “People are getting some hay cut.”
And he said the cattle industry is showing signs of improvement. “The market seems to be somewhat better, far better than in April when it bottomed out.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
DURALDE -- Jeremy Craton didn’t grow up on a farm. He got a taste of agriculture one summer working for Acadia Parish farmer Bubba Leonards.
“That was my introduction to farming.”
Jeremy said he wasn’t even able to drive. “I was just 13 or 14 years old.”
He said he learned a lot from Bubba and his father, Dennis Leonards, and much of the work was done with a shovel. “I didn’t know there was a top cut or a bottom cut in a field. I’m glad they had patience because I sure needed it.”
After graduating from Notre Dame High School, he attended college at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and LSU-Eunice for a few semesters, but he figured out college wasn’t for him.
Jeremy started working for a construction company, and he found out he liked playing in the dirt with heavy equipment and driving 18 wheelers. “You couldn’t get me away from it.”
He said his first year of farming 10 years ago at age 30, he had 40 acres of rice, and he was hooked. Jeremy said his father, Crowley attorney John Craton, helped him on the business end by teaching him money management.
He said he enjoys farming because of, “Being in the dirt. Being my own boss.”
But he quickly learned that if he wanted to be a rice farmer, he had to go into the crawfish business.
“It was actually crawfish that helped me where I am now, and I’m not nearly out of the woods.”
He relied heavily on his father-in-law, Paul Lejeune and Paul’s brother, Neal Lejeune, for farming advice. They all help each other at harvest time.
His son, Gage, age 14, helps on the farm during summers. He’ll be in the 9th grade at Basile High School this year. With schools closed because of the pandemic, he has been a regular fixture on the farm.
Besides Gage, Jeremy and his wife, Tiffany, have two other children, daughter Riley, who will be a senior this year, and their youngest, 8-year-old Wyatt.
Jeremy thinks Gage and Wyatt might become farmers. “Both boys have a pretty good interest in it. Every chance they have, they’re with me.”
He is working this year with Keith Fontenot, retired county agent in Evangeline Parish who is the research associate working with the LSU AgCenter Rice Verification Program. A handful of fields are chosen throughout the state’s rice-growing areas for the Verification Program, and Fontenot helps farmers with technical advice on planting, pest control, fertilization and water management.
On Jeremy’s 46-acre field for the Verification Program, he had the rice variety Cheniere flown on at 80 pounds an acre on March 22.
Fontenot said he is recommending that Jeremy apply a third of the field’s nitrogen, followed by another third after 2 weeks, and the last third at green ring. He also recommended spraying propanil to control sedges.
Jeremy said he benefits from the Verification Program by having another viewpoint from Fontenot and Evangeline Parish County Agent Todd Fontenot. “I like meeting with them and walking the fields and listening to what they have to say. They walk a lot of fields with a lot of problems.”
Keith Fontenot said he is impressed with Jeremy’s attitude. “No matter how bad the situation is, he can deal with it. He doesn’t get rattled and he takes things as they come. He keeps a level head.”
He recalled that one morning, Jeremy had a series of problems that came up at the last minute. A crawfish boat and a spray rig had problems at the same time a home improvement project was about to start, but Jeremy showed up for a meeting anyway. “Anybody else would have said, “I’ll see you later. I got problems I have to deal with.”
Todd Fontenot said Jeremy was in the Verification Program several years ago when it was run by Dr. Johnny Saichuk. Jeremy allows some of his land to be used for the Asian Soybean Rust sentinel plot to monitor possible outbreaks of the disease, and he sits on the Evangeline Parish Rice and Soybean Advisory Committee. “He’s been easy to work with and eager to work with us.”
Jeremy said much of the rice he grows has been sold to Bunge and shipped to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, so he is concerned whether the ports along the Gulf Coast will remain operational. (The Zen-Noh Grain Corp. of Japan announced in April that it is buying Bunge’s 35 grain elevators along the Mississippi.)
He also grows medium-grain rice that he sells to the Kennedy Rice Mill in north Louisiana at Mer Rouge.
This year, the Craton farm has about 275 acres of medium-grain and about the same acreage in long-grain. He won’t grow a second rice crop because he wants to concentrate on crawfish. He has about 600 acres in crawfish this year.
Although he has grown soybeans before, he quit growing poverty peas several years ago.
Last year’s rice crop was mixed for Jeremy and most farmers because of disease problems. His long-grain yield averaged only 32 barrels, but he got 50 barrels an acre from his medium-grain crop planted in Jupiter.
He said kernel and false smuts were widespread, and huge clouds of yellow and black dust filled the air at harvest. “Late afternoon we’d have to stop to wipe the windows down on the combines. If we had to work on a combine, you’d have to blow off the dust first.”
He expects the smut will return this year, but he has a plan to fight the problem. “I’m considering an earlier fungicide treatment and a second treatment.”
He’s more optimistic about his rice this year than last year when prices were low, and the crop was one of the worst in many years. “There’s more potential right now than last year.”
“The cost of inputs is just as much as last year,” he said, but added that fuel is much cheaper.
He started selling some of his crawfish to a new buyer recently, and that absorbed much of his harvest. For a while, his original buyer limited how much could sell. “Even during Holy Week, we were limited.”
But with a new additional buyer, he has been able to resume harvesting at full capacity. “Last week I was able to start fishing everything.”
But he said the limits placed on his catch apparently resulted in an overpopulation which has led to a smaller size overall. “The quality has gone way down. I fished 240 acres yesterday, and I caught 25 sacks of peelers.”
He figures the overall economic loss for his crawfish this year has probably cost him about $500 an acre. “It’s not good. Crawfish usually has to make up the difference for the rice. It’s going to be tough.”
Jeremy started running his boat with cage wheels, made by Hughes Manufacturing of Jennings, instead of paddle wheels, on four of his five crawfish boats this year. He said the cages don’t rut fields as badly as the conventional paddle wheels.
Jeremy is pleased with the progress of his rice crop so far this year.
Keith Fontenot travels through the rice growing area weekly to check on Verification Program fields, and he said the young rice crop looks good. Some of the early dry-planted rice had uneven stands at first, he said, but they have evened out gradually. He said a Verification Program field in Acadia Parish is approaching green ring.
Dr. Dustin Harrell, LSU AgCenter extension rice specialist, said “This year’s rice crop has had a tremendous start. It’s one of the best starts I’ve seen in a long time.”
He said the overall temperature in March was 10 degrees warmer than the average. “Our crop really jumped up to a good start.”
A few days of cold weather in April probably slowed growth but the crop has bounced back, he said.
Harrell said some fields have had a problem with chinch bugs, and some rain events have interfered with fertilizer applications, but south Louisiana rice is doing well.
He said north Louisiana and Arkansas growers have had problems with wet weather at planting.
Todd Fontenot said the Evangeline Parish rice crop looks ahead of schedule, maturing quicker than usual. He said the crop was beaten up by a heavy storm in late April.
“It’s coming out of it now. This weather has been pretty good for growing rice.”
Story by Bruce Schultz
Dr. Mike Strain, Commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, is concerned that folks in rural parishes are not abiding by the stay-at-home orders issued to keep the coronavirus in check.
It’s a part of the close-knit nature of rural life to socialize and have gatherings for barbecues and crawfish boils. But Strain is advising that now is the time to stay at home so that we will continue to have those friends and relatives for the future.
Strain urges everyone to continue to follow CDC guidelines for health, hygiene, cleaning and disinfection.
The coronavirus’ impact on Louisiana’s population becomes more obvious every day. For Strain, whose friends span the state, he knows several individuals stricken with the virus, including family members, friends in state government and several people involved in agriculture.
He said now is not the time to relax rules for social distancing. “We’re not there yet. We are now at the end of the beginning.”
He said most of the focus has been on urban populations, but rural areas need to observe social distancing and stay-at-home orders as well. “We’re telling everybody they need to take this serious. In rural areas, they are not taking this as seriously as they should. It can really hit a rural area hard.”
Strain said farmers tend to lead a healthy lifestyle, and they are usually working outdoors. And they are accustomed to working alone. Farmers are usually social distancing as they work the fields and pastures, Strain said. “Also farmers practice a lot of good hygiene. They are used to dealing with herd health.”
He said livestock producers understand diseases, vaccines and the need to isolate new or sick animals.
He said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has recognized agriculture as critical infrastructure, and the following have been identified as essential:
• Workers supporting groceries and other retail businesses that sell food and beverage products.
• Restaurant carry-out, delivery and quick-serve food operations.
• Food manufacturing employees and agricultural processors.
• Farm workers and support service workers.
• Agriculture warehouse, distribution and transportation workers.
• Governmental agencies involved in regulatory and program support of agriculture.
• Workers who support the manufacture and distribution of forest products.
• Employees who make and maintain agriculture equipment.
“It is imperative for our national security that we continue to provide food, fiber, energy and health requirements for the human and animal populations. We must ensure these vital goods and services are protected and not interrupted,” said Strain. “We are committed to facing this crisis head on and working as a team at the national, state and local levels.”
Getting imported farm labor into the U.S. – crucial to the state’s sugar industry and crawfish producers and processors -- has been a bigger problem since coronavirus reached the U.S., Strain said, but federal agencies have responded to concerns. “The USDA stepped up to the plate. The USDA has leaned forward with the Department of Labor.”
Now, foreign workers who went through the required interview will be allowed into the U.S.
Strain said commodity prices have not been hurt as severely as stocks. “By and large, they have been fairly stable.”
But he said corn has been hit the hardest, probably because of the price drop in oil prices from the decreased demand for fuel and the lowered prices.
He said an anticipated 25 percent drop in nationwide corn acreage will probably shift more land to soybeans.
Strain said this historic crisis has shown citizens the value of American agriculture. “More than ever, we must recognize the importance of our farmers, ranchers, foresters and producers. They are still working to keep the food supply chain plentiful, safe and healthy.”
Strain said there is an increased demand worldwide for food produced in the U.S., although getting those products overseas on ships could be a problem.
“If a sailor gets sick, no one will board that vessel,” he explained.
He said it’s important to have backup personnel in the shipping industry as well as inspectors.
At food processing facilities, staffing is a challenge also, he said. As people get sick, there may be no one to replace them. “For food inspectors, we do not have significant additional workers, should our workforce get sick. We’ve been working very hard to keep those things in motion.”
Now that restaurants are only open for pick-up and delivery service, he said, people are cooking more at home and that means grocery spending has jumped considerably. Not just toilet paper is in short supply at groceries.
“Our biggest struggle is to keep sufficient food production to stock the grocery shelves.”
He said he got a frantic call from someone who mistakenly thought the nation has a reserve of milk being kept out of the marketplace. Strain said he tried to explain that dairy facilities are operating at full throttle and that dairy products are in the marketplace as soon as they are processed, packaged and shipped. “You can’t milk that cow any harder.”
Strain said he understands the problems currently faced by crawfish producers with decreased demand from restaurants and sharply lower prices. “A lot of farmers break even on rice and make money on crawfish.”
Strain said the public can help by buying crawfish, maybe even a sack to boil at home to freeze the tail meat. He said consumers should consider buying not only crawfish but other Louisiana food items. “Now’s the time to learn canning and to put products up.”
As a veterinarian, Strain knows the science of diseases and how they spread. He said antibiotic supplies for humans and animals are in short supply.
So far, he said, it does not appear that domestic animals are susceptible to the coronavirus.
“Less than 10 animals worldwide have tested positive. It’s not felt that animals can contract or convey the virus.”
This disease originally jumped in China from a bat to a pangolin, a critter like the armadillo, and then to humans. Strain said viruses historically have originated in a lower species and then mutated to allow an infection of humans. Several influenza strains started in birds, first in wild flocks then moving to domestic birds.
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
BOYCE – Adaptation is the key to Robert Duncan’s beef cattle production on the family farm of 1,200 acres in Rapides Parish near Boyce.
As the price of ryegrass seed went through the roof, Duncan looked for a cheaper forage for this year on a 110-acre pasture. He bought wheat seed straight out of a neighbor’s field and broadcasted it at 90 pounds per acre.
When he ran out of wheat after about 80 acres planted, he bought enough ryegrass seed to finish out the remaining 30 acres, and that provided him comparison.
He also planted another 160 acres of ryegrass planted by airplane.
Ed Twidwell, LSU AgCenter forage specialist, said wheat as a winter forage is a good alternative to ryegrass. It matures faster in the spring than ryegrass, he said. “When utilized during the winter and early spring, wheat provides a good source of nutrition for livestock.”
Twidwell said wheat should be planted about an inch deep, considerably deeper than ryegrass.
“Wheat is more winter-hardy than annual ryegrass, and therefore provides some insurance for livestock producers who are concerned about winter damage to their forage stands,” Twidwell said.
He said ungrazed wheat pasture can be made into dry hay or baleage in April or early May.
Vince Deshotel, LSU AgCenter regional livestock agent, said the wheat forage used on the Duncan farm works well in areas with good drainage but it probably wouldn’t work so well in south Louisiana with flat ground and predominantly clay soils.
Duncan plans to plow the remaining wheat and ryegrass in mid-April before soybean planting instead of using herbicides.“Steel is cheaper than chemicals.” He also figures he’ll get a boost in organic matter.
The Duncans’ cattle are commercial cross. Bulls are Angus or Brangus, although they’ve tried other breeds including Charolais, Hereford and Beefmaster. They prefer sires from the Branch Ranch in Coushatta.
The Brangus introduces some Brahman influence. “Buyers only want so much extra ear. There’s something about black-and-white faced cows that buyers like.”
Robert said they have found that mixed breed cattle seem to withstand the disease and insect pressure better than a single breed. “They’re just hardier animals.”
So far, they have used their own stock for replacement heifers. Red ear tags designate the keepers. “Some years we’ll keep three or four, and others 12 or 15. But we only keep the best of the best. We like to keep around 200 head of momma cows. We’re a little off from that now because we sold some off in the fall.”
At one time, row crops dominated the Duncan operation. “We farmed more, and the cows were just lagniappe.”
But when his uncle retired from farming and his grandmother died, things changed. “We put more effort into cows to improve the herd.”
One major change was implementing a defined breeding season. “We used to leave the bulls here year-round. “With a breeding season, you close the window down.”
Bulls are now left the cows December through April and then again in May and June. That cycle provides fall and spring calving seasons.
They use video sales with Superior Livestock based in Fort Worth. When the calves are penned for vaccinations and castration, a video crew takes footage for prospective buyers, and the auction is held online.
“By then, we should pretty much be done with calving.”
They have a 30-day window for delivery.
Deshotel said the video sales have allowed producers to expand their reach into the national market. The sales are generally only available to producers who can sell roughly a truckload of calves, roughly 90 head, but small producers could pool their cattle with neighbors to put together a load, he said.
The Duncans’ cull cattle are sold at the Red River Livestock auction barn in Coushatta.
Three years ago, Robert started selling half and whole calves to local buyers. Their calves are processed by the Louisiana Tech Meat Lab.
The Duncans will have 450 acres of soybeans this year.
Robert said the field now with wheat and rye can be irrigated in 2-3 days using Bayou Rapides water, using a combination of poly pipe and hard pipe, but that wasn’t need last year because of frequent rain. In a normal year, he estimates irrigation is need 2-3 times.
On irrigated ground, the Duncans are happy with a little over 50 bushels of soybeans an acre, and over 40 bushels on dry ground.
The Duncans don’t have grain bins, so they haul their beans to Bunge in Jonesville.
Robert went to LSU-A for a couple years, then sat out for 2 years before he enrolled in Louisiana Tech where he graduated in 2015 in agribusiness with a plant science minor.
He is a fourth-generation farmer. His great grandfather, RMC Duncan, farmed in Grant Parish. His grandfather, RMC Duncan II, farmed that land until 1953 when the family moved to the Boyce farm where Robert now farms with his father, RMC “Robbie” Duncan III. Robert is actually RMC Duncan IV, but goes by Robert.
Robert’s wife, Rachel, has started a cut flower business in their backyard. She sells her products at the Alexandria Farmers Market.
“We literally plowed up our backyard to grow flowers.”
To Robert’s surprise, the enterprise has been successful. “She usually sells out.”
She also has a base of customers who sign up 6 or 12 weeks to have fresh cut flowers. “I didn’t realize how much work was in it,” she admits.
The first of their year’s crop of flowers has been transplanted from seedlings grown indoors, and she expects to start selling by April, unless Robert caves in and builds that high-tunnel greenhouse she wants.
Rachel also is a portrait and wedding photographer. One of her biggest draws is photographing her subjects in a field of cotton.
The Duncans have Facebook pages for the photography, cut flower and beef enterprises (Bayou Petals Flower Farm, Rachel Duncan Photography and R&R Duncan Cattle).
Robert is active in Louisiana Farm Bureau and he is vice president of the Rapides Parish Farm Bureau Board of Directors, and he’s on the Farm Bureau’s Livestock Committee. He and Rachel also are Farm Bureau State Committee members for District 4.
He participates in the annual trek to Washington D.C. to meet with Louisiana congressional delegation to inform them of the problems facing farmers back home. He admits being surprised by how much he enjoys that trip. “Farm Bureau has opened a lot of doors to do things like that.”
He is currently in the 2020-22 class of the LSU AgCenter Leadership Program.
He has been through the LSU AgCenter Master Cattleman Program twice, once on his own and again with Rachel, and he said it was well worth the investment of time. “If you didn’t get something from every class, you weren’t paying attention. You get a little bit of everything from everywhere.”
Deshotel, also LSU AgCenter Master Cattleman coordinator, met Robert and Rachel Duncan when they attended the Master Cattleman program at the Dean Lee Research Station.
Deshotel said he was impressed with Robert’s eagerness to learn. “He was very open to be more educated in beef cattle production, and management of his herd.”
Deshotel said the Duncan operation is succeeding because they recognize the need to diversify.
He said he was impressed with The Duncans’ activity in agriculture advocacy groups, including Farm Bureau and Young Farmers and Ranchers, and their efforts traveling to Washington D.C. to meet with congressional leaders is an asset for Louisiana.
“It takes the willingness of those kinds of people to lobby Washington to let Congress know what’s going on here.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
CROWLEY – The genesis for Acadia Crawfish can be traced back to owner Scott Broussard’s high school days.
“You probably won’t believe this but when I was a sophomore in high school, me and two friends, Stephen Moody and Mark Provost, wrote this exact business plan,” Scott revealed.
Even as a boy, he knew something about crawfish and farming. “Farming was in my blood.” His family had farms in Allen and Acadia parishes where cattle, soybeans and rice were raised.
While in 4-H, he had a 4-H Club project raising 12 acres of crawfish.
After graduating from Notre Dame High School in Crowley, Scott went to the University of Southwestern Louisiana where he played football and eventually decided to start working. He took jobs in the oilfield, at an ethanol refinery, at the family-owned Broussard Rice Mill near Mermentau and he sold cars for a Crowley dealership.
In 1991, he pulled out that business plan from high school and started farming 40 acres of crawfish to sell at a drive-through business in Crowley. “My wife and kids served crawfish out of a window. We just built it to where we are today. I pinched my pennies to survive.”
It takes considerably more labor to staff the business today. At its peak, the Acadia Crawfish plant will run 24 hours, with the peeling operation running in the day, and the whole-boiled crawfish at night.
Acadia Crawfish has a full-capacity workforce of about 160-170 employees. About 100 work in the peeling operation. Another 30 work on the farm operation, and the rest work all over the facility.
Almost all the workers are Mexicans. Many have worked 18-20 years for him, and he knows the regulars by name. “They are good people. Good workers. Very honest.”
“If I could not afford to house them, I would put them in my house with me. We treat them very well and they treat us very well.”
Scott still has enthusiasm for getting up to work at his business every day.
“I love what I do. It’s a challenge to buy and sell. It’s never the same obstacles. And I know I’m helping a lot of people.”
Scott’s wife, Julie, is the chief financial officer of Acadia Crawfish.
All five of the Broussards’ children work in the business. Their oldest son, Trent, oversees bait sales and he manages the farm. The youngest son, Taylor, works on the Acadia Crawfish farm of about 600 acres where rice and crawfish are produced, and he is a bareback rider on the professional rodeo circuit.
The third son, Trey, works in sales and inventory control.
One daughter, Elizabeth Broussard Schmid, works in receivables (she has become a standout in barrel racing for McNeese State University) and daughter Emily Broussard Stutes works in accounting for Acadia Crawfish.
Scott and his wife have grandkids to occupy their time when they’re away from Acadia Crawfish. “I have 11 grandkids and the twelfth is on the way.”
The Acadia Crawfish plant has about 120,000 square feet built on the old Jimmie Gainnie Chevrolet dealership lot on Second Street. “So we were able to buy this property in June of 2015 and we started construction immediately.”
The need to build a custom facility became obvious after Broussard and his workers were on the job 18-20 hours a day. “We couldn’t get our product in refrigeration in a timely manner.”
He said the new building is much more efficient. “It allows us to have a better product for our customers.”
Those customers include local groceries in Acadiana, as well as grocery chains based out-of-state.
Broussard said even though he has an established business, contact with existing buyers is required. “They don’t just break down your door. You have to pursue it and be competitive.”
Broussard said the business buys crawfish from 50-60 farmers in the area, and from other brokers who buy from farmers.
This year’s crawfish season has gotten off to a good start, he said. “It appears to have a lot of production. We’re hoping Mother Nature gives us the weather for them to grow.”
He said the crawfish will molt and grow with the cold fronts that typically roll through in the winter and early spring.
Broussard is concerned that a sudden freeze in the fall may have stunted his medium-grain rice stubble and he’s worried that the food supply for crawfish may play out by mid-spring.
Mark Shirley, LSU AgCenter crawfish specialist, said the mild weather has been favorable for crawfish. “The weather has been cooperating with warm spells to help crawfish grow to a larger size.”
Shirley said crawfish early in the season might appear too small to harvest, but it’s a mistake to return those crawfish to a pond with the assumption they will grow to a desirable size. “If it’s big enough for a trap, you’re better off to sell them as a peeler. Putting them back will just add to the overcrowding factor.”
Shirley said it’s unlikely those same small crawfish will be caught again, and money and time have already been spent to harvest that crawfish. Shirley said crawfish that hatched in October or November have reached peeler size. “They need one more molt to get to a medium size. We’re at the point where young of the year are just reaching harvestable size.”
Shirley said more land is being used for crawfish, and this year’s statewide total is expected to reach 250,000. “Crawfish is a good alternative crop if you already have rice land with levees and a water system already in place. With the right management, you can switch into crawfish fairly easily and rotate with rice.”
Scott said more farmers are harvesting crawfish to make ends meet. “I don’t know any rice farmer that does not crawfish.”
He said farmers who sell to him have doubled their crawfish acreage in recent years, and the increase is significant this year. “We’re probably three times ahead of where we were last year.”
He said last year’s cold winter killed a lot of crawfish, but this year’s mild winter has resulted in higher numbers but a smaller size.
Shirley said the entire crawfish industry, like the Broussards’, is dependent on the guest worker program. Foreign workers arrive in January to start harvesting and employees for processing are right behind them.
Shirley said the whole-boiled operation like Acadia Crawfish has will help expand the crawfish market nationwide and relieve the local market of a glut. “I ate some the other night, and I’m sure it was last year’s crawfish but it was good. It’s acceptable especially if it’s going to markets in surrounding states.”
Acadia Crawfish hasn’t started its whole-boiled crawfish operation this year. When the price falls, Broussard will crank up that unit to have frozen boiled crawfish for sale.
Broussard said he is finding that the whole-boiled product sells better outside the area of traditional crawfish consumption. “We have had some product that goes to California, Virginia, North Carolina, Minnesota, Oregon and Nevada. We’ve actually exported some to Vietnam and China.”
Live crawfish can be hauled to the International Airport in Houston to be flown to the Asian countries that same day.
Acadia Crawfish has a fleet of trucks, but they are only used for regional distribution. Anything beyond the Gulf Coast region is transported by contract haulers.
He said about 85 percent of what the company sells is live, while the rest are processed.
Shirley said the Acadia Crawfish operation is a well-run operation capable of handling a large volume. “They’ve got a really nice modern facility that’s well-designed and laid out well.”
Scott is optimistic about the future of Louisiana crawfish. As more people beyond Louisiana learn about crawfish, the market will be able to absorb more product. “Ten years ago, we weren’t selling whole boiled crawfish. Today, the Louisiana industry is selling 15 to 20 million pounds of whole boiled crawfish a year.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
JEANERETTE – This year’s cane crop for the Patout sugar mill, the Enterprise Factory, between Jeanerette and New Iberia has not been stellar, thanks to the weather.
Randy Romero, M.A. Patout and Sons chief executive officer, said
the yield of roughly 30-32 tons per acre, was less than his expectation of 35-40 tons.
Patout processed 2.55 million tons of cane last year, but this year’s total will be about 2.1 million, Romero said.
Grinding started Sept. 24 at the Enterprise Mill and ended on Dec. 30.
Sugar recovery was better than last year, he said, about 208 pounds per ton, compared to 202 pounds of the 2018 crop.
Romero said several factors contributed to the lower yields. “Last year was extremely wet.”
And that miserable wet harvest of 2018-19 didn’t help this year’s, causing damage to stubble, he said.
Disease, specifically rust, was a problem in 2019 that probably resulted from the mild winter of 2018-19.
Fertilizer probably lost some of its effectiveness because it was applied in wet conditions in the spring, he said. “We never really saw good growth.”
Then along came Hurricane Barry in July at a crucial growth stage. Plants probably lost about 3-4 weeks of growth, Romero said. “It shredded the leaves and leaned the cane in some areas. It put that cane in shock.”
The fields were wet through August, but dried for planting in September, he said. “Overall, our harvest season went fairly well.”
Romero said the 2018-19 crop had higher tonnage because of a late growth spurt in September and October 2018, but that didn’t happen this year. “It wasn’t significant enough to contribute to a high tonnage year.”
The freeze in this past November caused the sucrose level to decrease, but Romero said the effect was somewhat minimized because of the cold tolerance of varieties 299 and 540.
“Outside of the freeze, we’ve had fairly good harvest weather.”
Dr. Kenneth Gravois, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist, agreed with Romero’s conclusion about the muddy harvest a year ago affecting the most recent crop. “It was a light crop. Anytime you have a muddy harvest, in the previous year, you have a hangover effect into the next year.”
He said the average yield was 30.2 tons per acre statewide, compared to 39.3 tons the previous year. “That was a record tonnage last year.”
But he said the average sugar extraction of 222 pounds of sugar per ton of cane was an improvement over last year when the average was 219 pounds.
Gravois said this crop was about average, and for the most part harvest conditions were dry, and planting was accomplished in good conditions. “We’re going to be optimistic for next year.”
Gravois said the recent cane acreage totaled 482,300, compared to 459,000 in 2018. He expects acreage to increase for 2020, possibly as much as 490,000 acres, as more land is put into cane production to the west and north.
Blair Hebert, LSU AgCenter county agent for sugarcane in the Bayou Teche area, said fields were badly damaged in 2018 during the muddy harvest.
He said Hurricane Barry damaged the cane worse than was initially thought with the tops of cane plants broken. The early freeze put a freeze on sugar production in the plants, he said.
“This is one of those tough years that Mother Nature didn’t give us much to work with,” Hebert said. “Overall, this is not going to go down as a good yielding year.”
Romero said Louisiana mills must run at a high-volume capacity to be profitable. To make sure that happens the Patout Equipment Corp. (PEC), formed in 2005, with a fleet of 42 combines and 220 trucks, harvests and hauls about two-thirds of the cane processed by the Patout mills.
Contract haulers were used to bring much of the cane to the mills, but high insurance costs drove them out of business, which led to the formation of harvest groups like PEC.
Foreign labor through the H2A program makes up most of the harvest company’s workforce, Romero said. “Our industry would be in serious trouble without it.”
He said it’s impossible to find enough licensed commercial drivers in the U.S. to staff the seasonal labor demand. “Our industry can’t go back.”
It’s becoming more difficult to get seasonal workers into the country in time for the harvest of Louisiana’s $3 billion crop, he said.
Immigration laws need refined to better define farm labor and farm activities, he said.
“All 11 mills in Louisiana struggle with labor,” Romero said.
Cane is sprayed with ripener 35 days before harvest, and everything is ready but everything rests on getting workers into the country in time to start cutting cane.
Also federal labor laws don’t classify the mill factory workers as agricultural and that also slows down the process of getting the labor here on time. “It should all be part of agricultural activity.”
Romero said Patout has expanded to the west, contracting with farmers in Vermilion Parish, and to the north in Acadia Parish and up to Cheneyville because available cane land has become scarce in St. Martin, Lafayette and Iberia parishes because of development. And those new residents living in those new subdivisions are not as accepting of traditional farm practices, like burning cane leaves.
With the longer harvests, all Louisiana farmers are concerned with freezing weather, but they have the option of buying crop insurance to protect their investment, Romero said. “Although it can be expensive, we encourage our farmers north of I-10 to buy crop insurance.”
Romero is convinced that tort reform in Louisiana would result in lower insurance premiums for cane trucks over time. The American Sugar Cane League and other pro-business organizations are working on that, he said. “We need tort reform in Louisiana desperately.”
He said PEC does its part towards safety in the field and on the road, with GPS monitors, dash video cameras in the trucks and radio communications. “We’ve got a stringent safety and enforcement plan.”
County Agent Hebert said the company’s safety program demonstrates that Patout is a leader at making a proactive approach to potential problems. “They have come up with concepts and ideas to address issues that arose. And they are very supportive of the farmers.”
The Sterling mill added a four-roller mill unit in 2019 to increase capacity and the Enterprise and Raceland mills will have new similar units online for the 2020 harvest to increase daily capacity, Romero said.
The Enterprise mill has 250 employees for grinding, and 180 during the off-season.
The Patout operation includes the Enterprise mill between Jeanerette and New Iberia, the Sterling Sugar Mill in Franklin and a raw sugar mill in Raceland. Patout is a privately held corporation, not a cooperative among farmers.
Romero grew up in Youngsville, graduated from the University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1981, and became a CPA working for an Abbeville accounting firm.
In 1989, he went to work for the Sterling mill and in 2002 became the chief financial officer for Patout after it bought the Sterling mill. In 2014, he was chosen as the chief executive officer for Patout.
Romero said the start and end of grinding season is stressful on everyone.
“The Patout organization is made up of a great group of dedicated people from its Board of Directors, officers, managers, supervisors, and all its employees and farmers, all of equal value,” Romero said. “Today, as in the past, the Louisiana sugar industry is blessed to have great people.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
The hemp business is coming to Louisiana in 2020.
Growers, processors and retail sellers are gearing up for the coming year, even though none of the required licenses have been issued by state agencies.
Industrial hemp is the same cannabis species grown for marijuana, but hemp is a different than marijuana. Industrial hemp can produce numerous essential oils such as the chemical compound called CBD (cannabidiol), and it must have less than 0.3% THC (Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical compound in marijuana that provides the high.
The 2018 farm bill removed hemp as a federally controlled drug and allowed for national production of the crop. The farm bill required the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create regulations for states and individual producers to follow.
Other states have had industrial hemp production, such as New York, Kentucky and Florida by participating in a pilot program of the 2014 Farm Bill. Some states such as Colorado and Oregon also have programs where marijuana has been legalized. Louisiana is one of many states later to join the game.
Licensing by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) for companies to grow, haul or process hemp is required but no licenses have been issued yet. The LDAF expects to start issuing licenses in early 2020, and that will clear the way for Louisiana’s young hemp industry. The agency is hosting a series of meetings in December, and the LSU AgCenter held an informational meeting in November.
In the meantime, several companies in Louisiana have been formed and they are ready to do business as soon as they get LDAF approval, but the Louisiana Department of Health and the state office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control are also requiring permits for processors and sellers. The ATC currently has 1,274 applicants, mostly retail sellers.
Dr. Gerald Myers, a cotton breeder for the LSU AgCenter, has been assigned to grow industrial hemp and learn about its characteristics. He has 64 plants growing in the LSU AgCenter Plant Materials Center near the LSU Campus. “Nobody has grown hemp in Louisiana for decades.”
He literally started learning about hemp from the ground up, consulting numerous published and online resources.
He is growing the plants under a research exemption. Myers has so far obtained seed from plants grown in Kentucky, Washington, California and Colorado.
He said the first thing he noticed in the growing process was the plants had low vigor and were slow to emerge from the soil. He said some of the seeds had a germination rate of less than 1% while others had 80% germination so sourcing from reputable suppliers is essential. Transplants or clones are more likely to be used for essential oil production but are more expensive.
Myers said much of the hemp being grown is from genetics coming out of Canada and northern Europe, but those varieties aren’t likely to prosper in Louisiana conditions, he said. He would like to obtain varieties from Southeast Asia that are more likely to be suited for Louisiana.
He said the plants prefer well-drained soil with a neutral pH, and the nutrient demand seems to favor nitrogen and potassium more than phosphorous. “If you fertilize it like corn, you’d probably be fairly close.”
He’s also finding out that the plants are highly sensitive to photoperiods, the amount of time plants are in light and darkness. Shortening the amount of time plants are in sunlight speeds up the transition for plants to go into the reproductive phase to develop flowers, and it’s the flowers that contain the most CBD.
But most growers want plants to put their energy into producing CBD, not seed, so pollination is undesirable. For that reason, male plants that produce pollen are not wanted near female plants being grown for CBD and must be removed by hand. Small leaf buds may be clipped to encourage the plant to produce more flowers. Plants for CBD are also grown at wide spacings and there are no labelled herbicides. All this tells Myers that hemp production for CBD on a large scale would be a labor-intensive endeavor.
Licensing and testing fees under draft LDAF guidelines are likely to discourage mom and pop growers who might be thinking of growing just a few plants to make extra income.
He said that production economics are being looked at by LSU AgCenter economists.
Information on production, economics, pests and diseases is being made available on the LSU AgCenter website, www.lsuagcenter.com/industrialhemp.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that some farmers in other states are having difficulty selling their hemp crop because they failed to secure contracts beforehand, and prices have fallen considerably.
The Food and Drug Administration recently warned 15 companies, none in Louisiana, about illegally selling CBD products in ways that violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
The FDA also published a revised Consumer Update detailing safety concerns about CBD products more broadly. Based on the lack of scientific information supporting the safety of CBD in food, the FDA is also indicating today that it cannot conclude that CBD is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) among qualified experts for its use in human or animal food.
In addition to the interest in essential oils such as CBD, industrial hemp has a multitude of uses. Myers said the fiber potential might have a better long-term potential with fiber being made into make textiles, nonwoven batting, bedding materials, paper and a building material called hempcrete.
Myers said he will be working with Dr. Steve Harrison, an LSU AgCenter wheat breeder, to study the plant, and to develop varieties suitable for Louisiana. In 2020, Myers will grow hemp in field trials near the main campus and at a location in north Louisiana. He expects the LSU AgCenter will hold hemp field days in 2020. “On the national level, there is a coordinated research effort, and the LSU AgCenter will be cooperating in that.”
Meanwhile, several companies are eager get into the business.
Sales of CBD products in Louisiana have been legal as of the 2019 Legislative session. One of those sellers, Kristy Hebert of Baton Rouge, who grew up on a cattle farm near Cutoff, got into the hemp business the hard way.
She was walking along Nicholson Drive when she got hit by a drunk driver in 2012. The accident shattered her pelvis and she was in a wheelchair for a year while she learned to walk again at a rehab hospital. She was prescribed morphine for the pain, something she wanted to avoid. “I don’t even take Advil.”
Hebert said she looked for a more holistic means of pain relief and found out about CBD that gave her pain relief, and it inspired her to change her major at LSU to biological engineering to work with hemp.
She moved to Kentucky after graduation to work with the Hemp Research Foundation and the Kentucky Hemp Association.
Eventually, Hebert decided to return home and start her company, Cypress Hemp,in 2017, selling CBD-based products and clothing made from hemp. One of the most popular products, a CBD oil, is taken in the form of a few drops under the tongue. She also sells encapsulated CBD, and lotions and salves.
She also has shirts made from a hemp-cotton blend, and she said at one time hemp was a common material for making cloth. “Even the Mona Lisa is painted on hemp.”
Hebert stresses that she is not a health-care practitioner, so she can only pass along what her customers tell her that CBD has done for them. She said many have told her they have gotten relief from pain as well as anxiety.
Her products can be seen at the business website, www.cypresshemp.com. The website also has an extensive section that explains how CBD is obtained from plants, as well as the biology and chemistry of hemp and CBD.
She said she grew hemp on an acre in Virginia in 2019. “It was a great success. The plants did real well.” But production from just one acre wasn’t enough for her needs, she had to buy hemp from other farmers. She plans to grow a hemp crop in Louisiana in 2020, after she gets her license, but she expects she’ll have to buy hemp from other farmers to meet the demand.
She’s on a mission to educate the public about hemp’s benefits. “This is agriculture, just like strawberries or sugarcane.”
She plans to have Cypress Hemp processed at Courier Labsin Houma.
Courier Labsis investing $20 million in its facility. It is being constructed in the old Houma Courier newspaper building with 35,000 square feet, and an additional 20,000 square feet of space will be constructed there, according to Courier Labs partner Michael Thompson.
His partner, Ben Nearn, said the company has been operating in Colorado with a hemp grower in the past few years, but chose Houma for its base because that’s where the primary shareholder is from and because the workforce there is familiar with the refinery technology that’s used for hemp processing. “It has a fantastically suited workforce from the petrochemical industry.”
Nearn said the plant will have the capacity to produce 2,000 kilograms a month of hemp isolates, and that could be increased to 10,000 kilograms.
They are fully aware that a large initial production surge could lead to severely depressed prices.
Nearn said the facility could be ready for its first batch of hemp by the end of April. That’s assuming the regulatory hurdles have been cleared, he said. “We have a person who is employed exclusively for compliance and licensing.”
In addition, Thompson said Courier Labs is in the process of obtaining its IS09000 and Good Manufacturing Process certifications.
Chris Hansche is a partner in the Logansport company Bons Temps Growers. They plan to sell clones of hemp plants and provide advice for growers. “So we’ll be there for the entire growing season.”
Hansche moved to Louisiana after working 8 years in the cannabis business in Washington state.
He said 30,000 square feet of greenhouse space originally used to grow bedding plants is being modified to grow hemp plants, and two more greenhouses are being built.
He said they will sell small and large plants, but he recommends the larger plants for first-time growers.
Hansche said the company, once it obtains its license, will be able to provide plants now being grown in Tennessee and Arkansas.
The first year will be a chance to determine which varieties grow best in Louisiana.
He said Bon Temps Growers is pooling landowners, growers and financiers to get the industry started. “I really want to see it succeed in Louisiana.”
A lack of processing facilities has been the key bottleneck in the industry nationwide, he said. “The most critical thing they didn’t think about is, ‘What do I do after it’s grown?’ “
He said the company has made connections with a processing company that will be based in Covington.
Virgin Hemp Farms grew all of its first crop in Utah this year, but much of its 2020 crop will be in grown in Louisiana, said Blaine Jennings, a partner in the company based in Lafayette.
He said the first crop was grown in Utah because they were able to obtain a license there from the state government.
He said they have three greenhouses to start plants, and they will have 27 acres near Kinder for growing plants to maturity, in addition to continuing the Utah fields. Raised beds with plastic mulch and drip-line irrigation will be used, he said.
Also, they will use greenhouses to cultivate hemp flower specifically for smoking. Currently, smokable products cannot be bought in Louisiana. But Dr. Mike Strain, LDAF commissioner, said a recent federal court decision could prevent states from outlawing smokable CBD products, and that would lift the state ban. Jennings is aware of that court decision in Indiana, and he’s following it closely.
Jennings said the company also plans to build a processing facility with an industrial dryer.
Once a license is obtained, the company can plant seeds, but he said if licenses are issued as early as January, it will put seed growers on a tight timeline to produce seeds in time for planting in June. Plants grown for seed in greenhouses require restricted light close to maturity to simulate shortening day lengths that occur in the fall, he said.
Jennings said the specter of marijuana persists when CBD products are discussed. “There’s nothing of evil value to it. Hopefully that stigma will go away very soon.”
If a hemp crop grown for CBD contains more than .3 percent THC, the crop must be destroyed. Jennings said the amount of THC increases in hemp plants that are stressed, but the level can be reduced with an increased dose of nitrogen fertilizer.
But Jennings said variety selection can reduce the likelihood of excessive THC by careful selection of cultivars with low THC levels.
He said even though CBD plants have not been grown legally in Louisiana, it’s possible to choose varieties grown successfully in similar climates around the world.
But varieties grown in hot, humid areas of inland Oregon should perform well, he said.
Hemp prefers dry, arid climate, he said, but so does cotton and it grows well in Louisiana. But he said hemp requires soil that drains well, and that could eliminate clay soils found in rice fields and many areas where sugarcane is grown.
Jennings said anyone who wants to grow the crop should start small. “We’re not going to recommend going out of the starting blocks with 200 acres.”
He said the recent informational meeting held by the LSU AgCenter in November was beneficial for the start-up company. “We had a really good reception at the meeting.”
Jennings’ partner has a Lafayette-based company, Aromatic Infusions, that sells CBD products and essential oils.
Robert Dupont of Dupont Nursery, based in Plaquemine, hopes to start selling clones, or cuttings, from hemp plants. The nursery was established in 1975, and it has specialized in hibiscus plants from its own breeding program.
Like others getting into the hemp business, Dupont is waiting for a license from LDAF, and he expects that could happen in January. “Until then, we can’t touch a seed.”
But he’s also eager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to write its final rules for testing hemp that could provide growers with leeway for THC content.
Without that rule alteration, he said, growers will be forced to harvest their plants early to avoid excess THC. “You get above .3% THC and you’re busted.”
But Dupont said it appears that plants that produce CBG, a compound like CBD but with more therapeutic characteristics, could potentially be more profitable than CBD.
Dupont said plant genetics will be crucial to growing hemp successfully in Louisiana. “We searched this country to find good genetics in the same latitude we are in.”
He said the Hemp Mine in South Carolina has developed good southern varieties that withstand humidity, with lodging resistance. He said the company’s varieties appear to grow well in clay loam soils.
Danny Dupont of Plaquemine, brother of Robert Dupont, has the Z-Top Greenhouse Co. He said growing hemp in a greenhouse provides control of moisture and insects. He said his greenhouse design features a filtered system that won’t clog. “It’s going to fit well with hemp.”
He said he has seen hemp plants that were stressed after a rainy spell. “These times when we get a week of rain, the plants are going to struggle. The roots don’t like to be wet.”
The LDAF is hosting free orientation meetings for cultivating, processing and transporting industrial hemp in Louisiana.
“Anyone interested in obtaining a license to cultivate, process or transport industrial hemp in Louisiana is encouraged to attend,” said LDAF Commissioner Mike Strain.
Topics of discussion will include licensing requirements through the LDAF, seed acquisition, cultivation and processing, as well as transportation regulations.
Registration is required. For details on how to register, go to the LDAF website at www.ldaf.la.gov, click on “Industrial Hemp” and a link to register is located under “Louisiana Industrial Hemp Regulatory Orientation.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
BRANCH – If life gives you lemons, make lemonade, so the saying goes. Mike Fruge has made his own version of that saying, using rice to make vodka. (Lots of rice farmers would say this year’s crop has been a big lemon.)
Fruge said it was the pattern of year-after-year of low returns on rice farming that led him to look at an alternative way to make money from growing rice.
“I’m actually trying to build a family business and brand so we can keep farming.”
His 80-proof rice vodka, labeled J.T. Meleck, has been on store shelves in south Louisiana for a year, and he has a warehouse full of bourbon also made with rice that is currently aging.
He admits he had a lot to learn about making spirits. “I didn’t know the first thing about it.”
So, he set out to see if he could make vodka from rice. He read all he could find, then attended a craft distillers convention in Baltimore and made a few contacts. “I asked a lot of people a lot of questions.”
Finally, someone at the event advised him to make 100 cases of vodka and to see if it would sell.
Rice is a natural for making liquor. “You can make alcohol from any starch,” Fruge said. “If you want it to taste good is where the trick comes in. I’m not a vodka expert, but I know what I like.”
The process is simple. The grain and other ingredients are cooked, then fermented, and finally distilled.
Fruge is tight-lipped about the exact details of his process. “I’m very protective of the recipes. I had an idea of what would work. I tried it out, and I was right. We leave just a hint of the rice smell.”
He doesn’t want to say what rice variety he uses, or whether long-, medium- or short-grain is used. He said the distillery needs about 70 acres of rice currently, but that could change. “If we are successful, we’ll need other farmers to grow it.”
His brother, Mark, oversees the family’s 4,000-acre rice crop. “He plants and he grows it, and he manages it.”
Jeremy Hebert, LSU AgCenter county agent in Acadia Parish, said he enjoys working with Mark. “He’s a very good farmer. I deal with Mark quite a bit and he’s always open to suggestions and follows LSU AgCenter recommendations.”
Hebert, who has made a few batches of whiskey himself, said the Fruge brothers are trying to get as much out of rice production as they can.
“I’m eager to try some of their product. They’re tapping into a unique product that’s going to find a new market for rice. Not on a large scale, but a niche market.”
Mark readily admits that the farm’s 2019 rice crop, like most others, was under par.
He grows a second crop of rice but it’s intended for crawfish, not for the grain. Traps have already been placed in the dry fields in anticipation of flooding.
Fruge crawfish are sold live and whole boiled. Orders can be placed by phone or online at www.cajuncrawfish.com. They also sell turduckens, stuffed chickens and other Cajun foods.
Fruge said he enjoys creating and building a business. “I’m a serial entrepreneur.”
Fruge has been in the seafood distribution business for 30 years, so he knows how to sell a product. In one way, selling liquor is easier because unlike seafood, it has a long shelf life.
He has a clear analogy of what it’s like to sell fish: “Somebody sells you a lit stick of dynamite and you’ve got to sell it before it explodes.”
He said he has a 4-day window to sell fish, and he’s often had no choice but to discard product that is too old.
Fruge Seafood buys salmon and tuna from Alaska, Chile and the Netherlands, for distribution to consumers, mostly restaurants, throughout the U.S. Mike has the distribution part of the business in Dallas, with the sales force based in Branch.
It all started when he thought he could haul a truckload of crawfish to Texas to make more money than he could by selling to local distributors who would double their money trucking their product to Houston.
“I thought if you can double your money in Houston, you can triple your money going to Dallas.”
He quickly found out that most Texans that far north didn’t even know what a crawfish was, much less how to cook or eat one. But his efforts revealed to him that a seafood distribution of fresh fish for restaurants could be viable. And he could sell the family farm’s crawfish as Texans’ appetites for crawfish developed.
For several years, he divided his time between Dallas and Branch, and admits the travel, being away from home and the intense work almost got the better of him.
But Fruge managed to assemble a good team for the seafood business. “The seafood company is the major cash flow tool that allows me to experiment with rice distillation.”
He made a considerable investment in a 7,000-square foot building to make the product. The building houses a new cooker, called a mash tun, and a modern still that he’s yet to test. (He doesn’t allow photos to be made of the still because he doesn’t want competitors to know what he will be using.)
Six 10,000-gallon fermenting tanks will be in place soon, and a custom-made boiler has been installed to generate food-grade steam for the cooker and distilling unit.
Fruge has plans to build a tasting room in Branch, as well as a larger storage area for bourbon. But at this point he’s not sure if Fruge Spirits will produce mostly bourbon or vodka.
Before he made vodka, Fruge started by making bourbon and he thinks he has a unique angle in the craft spirits market. “Nobody is making rice whiskey.”
To be sold as bourbon under federal law, it must be made from more than 51 percent corn in the grain recipe. While some distillers also use rye or malt, Fruge uses rice with the corn.
After bourbon is distilled, it must be aged in white oak barrels that by federal law can only be used for one batch. Used barrels can be used by the Tabasco company to age pepper mash or by Scottish distillers to make scotch whiskey.
The barrels are charred on the inside, and that’s what gives the whiskey its tawny color. Fruge said tannin in the oak also imparts a smoky flavor to the bourbon.
The barrels filled with whiskey have been stored for three years in an uninsulated storage area. “We want as much heat on these barrels as possible.”
He explained that during hot weather, the bourbon seeps into the wood where it absorbs flavor. In cold weather, the whiskey leaches out of the wood, drawing out the flavor and aroma. During the 3-year aging period, he’s yet to taste it. He plans to open a barrel in October to sample it, and then he’ll decide if the bourbon is a saleable product.
Fruge hasn’t settled on a name for the bourbon or a bottle design. He also isn’t sure when it will be available for sale. “I really don’t have good answer to that. When it’s ready, it will be ready, just like gumbo.”
He stressed that patience is key to making good bourbon. “You’ve got to sit on it to see what you’re going to get. Good bourbon is 4 years old, and the best is 8 to 12 years old.”
In the meantime, vodka can be distilled and bottled in a month.
He’s kept distribution of the vodka within Louisiana so far, and the vodka can be found in several stores including Rouse’s grocery.
The vodka bottle has a distinct tapered shape. The label details the J.T. Meleck story and the logo includes several Louisiana icons, such as crawfish and rice. His wife, Courtney, came up with the design.
“I’m trying to be a niche Louisiana product. Anybody can make the stuff, but can you sell it? Can you create a following?”
Fruge has a good angle for his first product. The vodka is named after His great, great uncle J.T. Meleck, who came to Louisiana in the 1870s from Indiana and started farming. The Fruge brothers still farm on land that’ been in the family since 1896.
Fruge said it was his grandfather, Rufus Fruge, who taught him about farming, and had him on a tractor before he was 10.
What would his grandfather think of the liquor-making endeavor? “My grandfather was extremely hard to please. I think at some level, he would have to be proud, but he wouldn’t admit it. He was old school.”
“I can hear him now, ‘Fella, you sure you know what you’re doing?’ and I would say, ‘No, but I’m doing my best.’ “
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
VICK – The Williams brothers farm in Avoyelles Parish is a long ways from anywhere, and you probably won’t pass by it on your way to another destination.
The state highway that leads to their place is as twisty as the story of how the Williams family came to the area on the north side of the Red River.
Scott and Alan’s father, Doyle Williams, originally farmed in northeast Arkansas, near Rector, Arkansas, located west of the Missouri boot-heel. “Cotton was the bread and butter back in the day,” said Alan, who is 18 years older than Scott.
He recalls picking cotton by hand in Arkansas, pulling a long sack through the rows alongside his mother. “I was 12 years old picking by hand, and my dad came and got me and put me in a picker. Dad bought a single-row picker in 1959.”
Back in those days, cotton harvest was a drawn-out endeavor, Alan explained. A field had to be harvested twice, because farmers didn’t have ripening chemicals to force bolls to mature all at once.
In comparison, corn – now the biggest crop on the Williams farm – is a much simpler crop than cotton, Alan said. “I haven’t shredded a corn crop yet.”
Their father grew cotton in Arkansas in the era of the boll weevil. High-boy spray rigs worked 7 days a week to spray methyl parathion. When the plants were at full height, the spray couldn’t penetrate through the foliage, leaving many weevils untouched, Alan said. “You’re not eliminating them, you’re just suppressing them.”
When the Williams family was in Arkansas, farmland in Arkansas and Missouri became scarce and expensive as soybeans became the No. 1 crop in the Midwest, and farmers were competing for land to grow the new commodity.
“When you’re poor, you don’t have cash to pay for land,” Alan explained.
To make ends meet, their father sold Ford vehicles in the off-season for a man with money to invest in land. The boss had heard about cheap land in Louisiana, and he sent Doyle down south to investigate around Jonesville, Louisiana.
Sure enough, there was land available but much of it was lush swampland that had to be cleared and drained.
A man with land for sale had a supper where he made a pitch to sell farmland, and Doyle was convinced that was the place to go.
Like pioneers, the family moved 452 miles south to hack out a living in a wild, untamed region.
A D-8 Caterpillar dozer was used to move felled trees, and Alan recalls it was possible to walk across a new field by stepping from stump to stump. Workers hired in Jonesville wrestled the roots by hand from the soil.
While the back-breaking work was tough, Alan recalled, making a homeplace in an isolated, strange land was even tougher.
“It was hardest on the wives,” Alan recalled. “It was hardest on the women.”
Alan recalls that their mother, Willodean, would wake them in the morning at 6 and breakfast would be ready, and often she would bring lunch to the fields, and then help pick cotton in Arkansas.
After the Williams migration to Louisiana, more Arkansas farmers followed them along with some farmers from Missouri. After moving to Louisiana, Soybeans was the main crop, and the Williams wouldn’t try cotton again there until 1974.
Alan and Scott, along with their sister, Beverly and Brenda, grew up on the farm. Both boys went away for school.
Scott pitched baseball for Louisiana College where he graduated in 1989 with a degree in mathematical computing. “I knew I was coming back to the farm.”
Alan also went to Louisiana College, playing basketball and graduated with a business degree.
At one time, the brothers farmed 3,800 acres of cotton, but eventually they had to make a tough decision and make corn their dominant crop. Nematodes in the sandy soil hurt the cotton crop so much that it became less profitable.
“We started raising corn as an alternative to cotton,” Scott said.
“Rita is the one that got us,” Alan said, referring to the 2005 hurricane that slammed Louisiana as the most powerful Gulf of Mexico storm. The 2,200-acre crop flooded from 22 inches of rain, and seeds were sprouting in the bolls and they had no choice but to shred the entire crop.
This year, they have 400 acres of cotton, and 3,000 acres of corn.
Last year’s corn crop average about 175 bushels an acre. “We’ll have some fields go over 200,” Scott said.
They expect to start harvest by the first week of August. “Usually around the second week of August is when we get into full swing,” Scott said.
Most of the corn is fertilized with 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre, although some areas get 246 pounds. Scott said they run tissue samples on their fields to determine the nutrient demand.
They irrigate about 90 percent of their corn crop using almost 30 miles of poly pipe. Coyotes are a problem with poly pipe because they rip holes in the plastic, Scott said. Repairs are made using 12-inch corrugated black plastic pipe.
After a disastrous drought in 1998, they decided irrigation was essential if they wanted to continue farming. First, they leveled their fields. “We started with one tractor and one dirt buggy,” Alan said.
They started planting corn this year on March 15 and ended 5 days later.
Flooding has claimed about 100 acres of corn this year, but they know their flooding problem is minor compared to a neighbor who had 2,000 acres flooded near Larto Lake. And then there are their friends in the Morganza area who face the possibility of losing all their crops planted in the Atchafalaya Spillway.
“When the Mississippi backs up, it causes problems for everybody,” Alan explained.
They have managed to farm on a large scale by using local workers who have proven to be dependable. The brothers have eight full-time workers, and one has been with them for 33 years.
“Most of our guys could work anywhere,” Scott said. “We employ our labor 12 months a year. We don’t ever lay them off.”
Herbicide-resistant pigweed is their biggest weed problem. They use a pre-emerge herbicide for burndown, then follow the planter with glyphosate.
Wild pigs also have been a problem, although a hired gun shot enough of them that they have moved elsewhere.
The Williams’ 1,500-acre bean crop this year is all dicamba-resistant. A neighbor grew dicamba beans last year but the Williams didn’t and their soybeans experienced a minor dicamba drift. Scott said the damage was cosmetic but it was enough to convince them that they should go all dicamba in 2019.
In 2018, they managed to harvest almost all of their 4,000-acre bean crop and 5,000 acres of a neighbor’s before last fall’s heavy rain that damaged much of Louisiana’s soybeans in the field. “We had 80 acres to cut after the rain,” Alan recalled.
Scott is the fabricator who custom builds their equipment.
He made a 90-foot hooded spray boom to handle mile-long rows of soybeans.
It folds so it can be hauled around the farm easier, but it uses large amounts of liquid quickly. So larger tanks had to be used to increase the capacity but those tanks mounted with regular John Deere parts made it impossible to turn front dual wheels. So Scott made wing-like arms, using 7-inch, half-inch wall square pipe, that hold larger tanks above the wheels. “This way, we can leave the duals on year-round.”
Alan said they had no choice but to learn to weld when they were kids. “There weren’t any machine shops around here.”
Scott said when he was a boy their dad went to Sears and bought a welding machine and cutting torch and turned them loose with scrap metal.
They will fabricate their own designs, or copy a piece of equipment. “When we copy something, it’s usually heavier than the original because out here, it takes some abuse,” Scott said.
Their farm acreage is located in three parishes: Avoyelles, Concordia and Catahoula. Some of that land is 75 miles away by road, but 15 miles as the crow flies. So after years of driving the narrow, twisty road to the distant farm, they decided to use the crow’s route and they bought an ultralight airplane. Scott learned to fly the aircraft, the largest ultralight at that time with a 33-foot wingspan.
It made scouting fields easier, and cut the commute time to the remote farm considerably. “I could land that thing on a turnrow,” Scott said.
One day they took off and the engine missed. Then it quit.
“It don’t take long to fall 200 feet,” Alan said.
They were black and blue but suffered no lasting injuries, however Alan said that ended their aviation experience. “The board of directors met, and we quit flying.”
But Alan isn’t ready to quit farming.
“I’ve got to be doing something. I just love to plant a crop and watch it grow.”
Justin Dufour, LSU AgCenter county agent in Avoyelles Parish, said enjoys working with the Williams. Dufour has held sessions to train their employees in the new worker protection standards.
“They’re very active in staying up to date on new technology,” he said.
Dufour said they have been eager to try new approaches such as cover crops. “They’re very open-minded to discuss things.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
MORGANZA – Ask Matt or Marty Frey what kind of farmer they are, and they’ll have to look at their watch before they answer.
They could be in sugarcane, crawfish, rice, hay, cattle or soybeans, depending on what needs attention on Four Oaks Farm.
And while they’re tending to the chores, Marty’s wife, Jodi, and Matt’s wife, Shawn, are back in the office, handling the voluminous paperwork.
They are in the middle of a successful crawfish season. Six boats are used to harvest 1,200 acres.
They currently use paddleboats, but Matt said he wants to find out about the practicality of airboats that some have started using to avoid rutting fields.
Matt said the emphasis is placed on quality crawfish. “I want quality over anything.”
Their motto is, “Our tails are heads above the rest.”
To have adequate forage for crawfish, they don’t grow a second crop and often they will plant rice in late summer.
They mostly sell to boiling operations in their area, although they have sold to Baton Rouge and New Roads restaurants.
The 1,100 acres of crawfish ponds are within the Morganza Spillway, so they have to accept that those fields are susceptible to flooding, if the floodgates are opened at Morganza to relieve pressure on the Mississippi River. The last time that happened was in 2011, but five times since then the Mississippi River water level has almost gotten high enough to require opening the gates.
“In 2011, this went under 10 or 11 feet of water,” Marty said while driving through a checkerboard of crawfish ponds.
He was worried that the high water this year would require using the spillway again. It was only inches from reaching that critical level, he said.
The brothers have another 1,500 acre farm, up the Mississippi River, called Blackhawk, and flooding is often a concern. "The last of April, it still had 300 acres underwater," Marty said.
Crawfish provides a spring crop, but unlike crawfish operations to the south, the Freys’ crawfish don’t get to a marketable size until mid-February at the earliest. “We’ll fish until Memorial Day or first week in June,” Marty said.
Then the presprouted rice will be flown onto the already flooded fields.
Marty said Neally sprangletop is their biggest weed problem. “We use a lot of Command to try to stay ahead of it.”
Dr. Eric Webster, LSU AgCenter weed scientist, says the weed Neally sprangletop is difficult to kill but it can be controlled with RiceStar HT. He said once the plant reaches maturity with a seed head, the plant is not growing and a herbicide doesn’t affect it much.
They have been experimenting with row rice for the past 5 years, and this year they have a 50-acre field of it. The practice involves using poly pipe to irrigate enough to keep the ground wet, but not continuously flood, so no levees are required. The idea is to save on the costs of pumping and setting up levees. Hybrid rice is preferred because of its disease resistance, and the field is drill-seeded.
They have used a computer program to determine the number, size and spacing of holes to punch in the poly pipe to get an even distribution of water across the field.
One year, they grew a field of row rice that RiceTec used to produce hybrid seed. Wind created by the down draft of a helicopter was used to pollinate male-sterile rows with pollen from adjacent plants.
The Freys’ rice is trucked to the Bunge elevator near Simmesport where it’s graded and loaded onto barges. They have a crew of migrant workers to work all the crops. “We’ve got some that have been with us for 20 years,” Marty said.
That longevity pays off by having workers who know how to carry out all the work without lots of supervision, he said.
One man has his three sons working with him, and most of the crew is related, Marty said.
Wild pigs are a major problem. “They’re worst in the rice when it’s flowering or when you drain the fields,” Marty said.
He said it’s not uncommon for pigs to destroy a half acre by trampling or rooting up the plants. And they damage cane fields too. “They’ll find the sweetest cane and cut it down.”
Traps worked for a while, but they became ineffective after the hogs figured out the consequences of entering a trap.
“We’ve got a guy who comes in and hunts them at night,” Marty said.
Last year, the hunter shot more than 400 pigs, often eliminating 20 a night but that number dropped to 2 or 3, according to Marty. But one night in April, he shot 23 hogs and a coyote.
Bears are often seen in the area, but they don’t cause much of crop problem, Marty said.
In 1999 the farm started a transition from cotton to sugarcane. In all, they have 3,600 acres of sugarcane. They also no longer grow corn or wheat, and cane has taken over that land also.
All their cane is hauled to Cora Texas mill in White Castle.
Marty said they are finding that 8-foot rows are better for their operation than 6-foot rows because of improved efficiency.
For sugarcane, Clean Tech seed is used, and they also grow seed for Clean Tech.
Most of their cane is hand-planted, but they have one billet planter with plans to get another one. Marty said there is some evidence that billet planting increases yield.
They still have a soldier harvester for seed to be hand planted.
Last year’s tonnage was good, at 41 tons per acre, but the sugar declined from the 2017 crop. “It was an expensive harvest because of the rain,” Marty said.
A dozer was required to keep the equipment out of the mud. “It pretty much ran all season.”
The early freeze in November stunted the crop’s growth, and limited the amount of sugar, he said. “Fortunately, we didn’t leave any of the crop in the field.”
Twin-row soybeans have been planted on 8-foot cane rows. Marty said he is trying the practice to see what advantages it has. “Last year, I didn’t see a difference in yield, but I do see a difference in stand.”
They will have 2,500 acres of beans this year and much of that will get replanted in cane after soybeans are harvested.
Marty has completed the Louisiana Master Farmer Program, and Matt has been through the Louisiana Master Cattleman Program twice. “It was way better than I could imagine.” He credited Vince Deshotel, LSU AgCenter regional livestock agent, for organizing a well-run program with experts in nutrition, health, genetics and pasture weed control. “Vince wants that program to be taken seriously. He wants people to learn.”
Matt said he was so impressed with the program that he took it a second time, bringing his daughter, Taylor.
The Frey farming effort began with Matt and Marty’s father, Frederick Joseph Frey, originally from the Mowata community of Acadia Parish. He moved to Lake Providence, Simmesport to work on farms owned by a large landowner, eventually settling in Morganza in the late 1960s to manage another farm.
When the large landowner put up 700 acres of land in Morganza for sale, Frederick and Edwin Leonards of Crowley, who married Frederick’s sister, bought that property and formed F&L Planters. Frederick, who died last year, eventually retired and turned over Four Oaks Farm to his four sons.
Today the operation is yet going through another transition, where Marty and Matt has recently bought out Mitch and Mark where they are branching out with their own enterprises.
Marty said the small farm owned by their father and uncle shows what persistence and hard work can build. “It got us all where we are right now.”
Story and photos by Bruce Shultz
ABBEVILLE – If you want to find Allen McLain Jr., you’ll have to look in several places.
He might be checking on his rice crop, or he could be meeting with his crawfishermen. But then again, he could be on an excavator doing dirt work for his father, Allen McLain Sr., or there’s a good chance he’s boiling crawfish.
He said the crawfish harvest was slow at first this year because of cold, cloudy weather. But warmer temperatures and sunshine in mid-March gave crawfish a boost. “It seems like every week, they just keep increasing in size. The Good Lord made us struggle for a while but we’re reaping the benefits now.”
He said the invasive mollusk, the apple snail, has been found in large numbers in his fields, but they don’t seem to cause any problems, although a farmer in Acadia Parish reported last year that they were clogging his crawfish traps. “We’ve had them 3-4 years. It’s never gotten so bad where we had to leave fields.”
McLain said he suspects the snails came from irrigation water pumped from the Vermilion River.
What crawfish McLain doesn’t use for his boiling operation is sold to a wholesale buyer near his farm. He and his wife have a custom crawfish catering business, and they also boil crawfish for Shuck’s restaurant in Abbeville six nights a week.
The catering business has out-of-state clientele. Once a year, they cook crawfish for an agricultural company in Colorado.
They also boil crawfish for the Louisiana senators and representatives in Washington D.C. He said during a rice-related trip to Washington, a Mississippi congressman talked him into boiling crawfish on Capitol Hill, and the congressman liked the result. “He said, ‘OK, you’re coming back next year because this is the best crawfish we’ve ever had.’ “
They also boil crawfish for school fundraisers, and for neighborhood block parties. And if someone wants an ice chest full of boiled crawfish, he can do that too.
He said word-of-mouth has been the best advertising for the boiling business. “I didn’t expect it to get this big.”
McLain said he’s been approached to open drive-through boiling operations around Abbeville, but he doesn’t want to spread himself too thin.
Mark Shirley, LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant aquaculture agent, said many farmers are good at producing crawfish, but McLain has the drive and knack for selling his product.
“Allen is not only a good producer of crawfish, but he’s good at marketing. He’s got a good businessman. With the help of his family and employees, they have developed a good chain of wholesaling and boiling.
McLain uses front-wheel paddle boats for crawfish. “They leave the least amount of ruts, and they are easier to fix.”
Allen has 850 acres of his own rice. Most of his rice is planted in CL111, but he also has some in Provisia.
He also farms with his brother, John, and father, Allen and together they have about 2,300 acres.
Last year, he had 300 acres of Provisia. The yield and milling quality were not as good as he expected, but he said much of that could be blamed on the weather. He said the Provisia technology’s ability to clean up red rice was good, however. “It cleaned up everything very well. The weed control is there.”
He had finished planting by the end of March.
McLain said his biggest problem in his rice crop is a weed known as Neally’s sprangletop. “You can spray it, and 2 weeks later here it comes.”
He said plowing seems to be the best remedy to upset the hardy root system.
Dr. Eric Webster, LSU AgCenter weed scientist, said Neally’s sprangletop is difficult to kill but it can be controlled with RiceStar HT. He said once the plant reaches maturity with a seed head, the plant is not growing, and a herbicide doesn’t affect it much.
Dermacor seed treatment is used against weevils, McLain said.
A second crop is grown on all of his rice. Rice, soybeans and crawfish are used in rotation on all fields. “We don’t plant anything back-to-back.”
He left last year’s soybean crop in the field because of the bad weather at harvest and he can’t recall how many acres were abandoned. “I don’t even know. I try not to remember. It was a very good crop until it started raining.”
Andrew Granger, LSU AgCenter county agent in Vermilion Parish, said McLain is active in farm organizations, and he’s president of the Vermilion Parish Rice Growers Association. “He’s kind of a model farmer.”
Granger said McLain is progressive and willing to try new technologies.
McLain and his wife, Erin, have two boys, Allen, 12, and Luke, 11, and a girl, Kaylee, age 8. They help boil crawfish. “Sometimes it’s the only chance we get to see each other,” Allen said.
Erin, a nurse, works alongside Allen to boil crawfish, and occasionally he has to be somewhere else so the entire operation is up to her.
They are also in the middle of building a new house.
McLain said he started driving a tractor at a young age to help his father. He went to McNeese and majored in agriculture. While in school, he came home to help his dad with the rice crop, and to run crawfish traps.
After school, he worked in construction as a heavy-equipment operator. Eventually, the urge took over to return home and farm.
McLain completed the USA Rice Leadership Development class after he was chosen in 2016. He said what he learned from the class was invaluable. “It was a very good eye-opening experience to know there are people going through the same thing. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
He said he found out there was a lot about the rice business he didn’t know, and he got to know the others in the class. “We still talk and text.”
McLain has rice and crawfish on land owned by Johnny Boudreaux. “I’ve known that boy since he was in the first grade.”
Boudreaux said his son Brett and McLain were classmates at Vermilion Catholic. “He was raised right. Good family values.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
EUNICE – The 2019 crawfish season is underway, but it has begun with a below-average start.
“It’s slow right now. Normally we would be wide open, but we’re at half throttle,” said Doug Guillory of Riceland Crawfish, based in Eunice. “They’re waiting for that sun so they can come out of that growth spurt.”
Mark Shirley, LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant aquaculture specialist, said cold, cloudy weather is the main reason the catch has been off so far.
“A lack of sunshine days during December and January delayed the crawfish molting and growing, and general activity,” he said. “We just need spring-time weather with milder weather. Until the water and the mud on the bottom warms up, it’s going to stay slow.”
When the water temperature reaches 65-70 degrees, the catch should increase, he said.
Shirley said the catch is down throughout the crawfish-producing area. “All parishes have the same problem, so we can conclude the weather is probably affecting everyone. There’s sufficient demand for the amount of crawfish available.”
He said production will probably catch up in late March and April, probably extending into May. High water in the Mississippi River will probably maintain high water that could lead to a good catch in the Atchafalaya Basin, he said.
Dexter Guillory, Doug’s father, recalls a comparable slow start to a season back in 2000 when the industry was rocked by the use of the ICON pesticide. “The whole year did not get any better than this.” But Dexter said he’s not worried. “The season is early.”
Dexter has more than 30 years of experience to rely upon for his prognostication. He began fishing on 50 acres of family property in the late 1970s when he was a butcher at Winn Dixie, then he started Riceland Crawfish in 1984 and opened the plant in the middle of Eunice. In the early 1990s, the company started processing alligator meat in a separate facility.
“We’re pretty much in every state with the crawfish and alligator,” Doug said.
The company is a major player in the live crawfish market, buying from area farmers and selling to restaurants locally and out of state.
Riceland also sends its 15 trucks loaded with frozen crawfish and gator meat to cold storage facilities in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami and Massachusetts. Food service companies and restaurants around the U.S. then place their orders and take delivery there. The frozen storage facilities never own the product, but they store it for distribution.
Doug’s sister, Holly, is in charge of selling the company’s frozen products. She started working with her brother and father 4 years ago after working for 15 years for the food company Sysco. Before that, she worked in restaurants, starting as a waitress, so she knows the food business from all levels. “I sell our finished products, or as Dad calls it the value-added products.”
Holly has to perform the balancing act of making sure the distribution warehouses around the U.S. have enough of Riceland’s products to meet orders, yet avoid overstocking. When she is trying to get restaurants to buy alligator and crawfish, she can recommend recipes.
Holly said the company has plans of starting to sell overseas. “We have every intention to expand into the European market.”
The small crawfish catch so far has affected supply, she said. “This is the first time that I ever knew about that we’re short on supply.”
She said her work often requires visiting buyers across the U.S., as well as attending trade shows.
In addition to frozen tail meat, Riceland sells whole-boiled crawfish. Dexter began selling that product in the early 1990s, but China took over the market with a cheaper product, but with inferior quality too. Buyers wanted a U.S. product.
“Seven or eight years ago, we started getting back into it,” Doug said. “It’s really grown in the past 2 or 3 years.”
Now the company has a brand new 30,000-square-foot facility east of Eunice designed for the frozen boiled part of the business.
It’s located beside a new 50,000 square-foot cold storage, Sub-Zero Storage, to store Riceland products, and for other companies to rent freezer space.
Dexter said the reason for the expansion was just simple economics. “We developed a good client base, and we have opportunity for more volume.”
The new whole boiled operation is about to start up, but an automatic packing machine has yet to be delivered. They hope to be operational by late March. “We’re pretty much down to the clean-up steps.”
The new facility has three blast freezers to freeze the boiled crawfish before it is shipped in 3- and 5-pound bags. Consumers can heat up the whole crawfish in boiling water, or in a microwave oven. Of course, they can be thawed and eaten cold too.
Doug said a critical taste testing would probably reveal differences in the frozen boiled and fresh boiled crawfish, but consumers are giving it favorable reviews. “We get phone calls and emails all over from people who appreciate having it.”
Mark Shirley said he tried the whole-boiled product, and he was impressed. “If you close your eyes, you’d swear you’re eating fresh boiled crawfish. It tasted very good.”
Dexter said the seasoning for the frozen boiled crawfish is adjusted for more sensitive palates outside Louisiana. “We don’t go overboard with seasoning. You can always add, but you can’t take away.”
The business has been dedicating mornings to process tail meat at the plant in Eunice, then using afternoons for whole-boiled product, but the expansion will allow a full day for both processes.
Live crawfish prices are too high for Riceland to start its boiling and freezing operation, Dexter said. Once the price drops, the whole-boiled processing will start up.
Dexter said the whole-boiled market is helping farmers by absorbing the product and helping bring some stability to the market.
Demand for alligator meat increased about 5-7 years ago, Doug recalled. “It’s been flat since then.”
The company sells tenderized alligator filets, alligator legs and breaded nuggets.
Last year, Louisiana harvested 415,000 farm-raised alligators, a record number, according to Shirley. Non-wild alligator meat is more consistent in flavor and texture, he said.
The company also sells crawfish traps, and materials for making traps, in addition to bait and sacks.
A full list of the company’s offerings and crawfish recipes can be viewed at its website, www.ricelandcrawfish.com.
Some of the Riceland’s employees have been working for Riceland for more than 20 years, and many of the workers are foreign. When the business is in full operation, it will have 250 people on the payroll.
Dexter said owning one of the largest businesses in Eunice is stressful, but he enjoys the work: “I like the job. You have to make a profit but you have to like working with customers. That’s the fun part.”
Fisheries agent Shirley said many crawfish businesses have failed, but Riceland has succeeded because of Dexter’s vision. “He’s one of the progressive figures in the crawfish and alligator meat industry. He’s a fair, honest broker, and he’s made good decisions along the way.”
Dwight Landreneau, retired LSU AgCenter associate vice chancellor, said he recalls from his days as a county agent when Dexter sold live crawfish out of the back of a pickup. “He’s an innovator when it comes to crawfish. He had a vision and he’s not afraid to take chances for improvements.”
“We’ve always been progressive, and that has pushed us in a positive way,” Dexter said.
Landreneau, who does quality control work for the company, said Riceland has succeeded because of the positive relationship the company developed with the buying public, and because of its emphasis on quality. He said Riceland is one of three crawfish distributors in Louisiana that has the Safe Quality Food certification.
Holly said several of the company’s long-time employees have helped with Riceland’s success. “Dad, Doug and I could not do it by ourselves. Our team is very important within the facility. Without them, we couldn’t do it.”
Dexter said he just turned 68, and he realizes his children will be taking over the business. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. There’s nothing more beautiful than family working together.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
ABBEVILLE - When Joel Gooch retired from four decades of practicing law, he went from the courtroom to his family homeplace in Vermilion Parish.
“It’s so peaceful and quiet out here.”
Gone were the rancor and conflict from fighting opposing counsel, along with the stress of managing a civil defense caseload.
He went from deposing witnesses, filing motions and picking juries to picking bulls, vaccinating cows and mending fences.
With the legal work behind him, he finds a satisfaction working with cattle.
“I can just look out at them and find it rewarding. Watching calves nursing from their mothers is gratifying.”
Joel said he is retired from practicing law, but not from work. “There’s always something that needs fixing. I traded an inside job for an outside job.”
His new work is different from litigation, but he sees some similarities. “One distinction I would make is this is less stressful than being a litigator. There’s something about working in nature that is very calming. Forty years of practicing law was cerebral work. This is more of a physical and manual job but it still requires a lot of thought.”
But he said nature can be an adversary as it was this fall when it stayed too wet to cut hay. “This is the first year I’ve had none. Last year, I had to buy hay for the first time.”
Joel said he has booked hay for this year to make sure he will have a supply in case the weather prevents cutting again.
In winter, he supplements grass with feed and ranch cubes, but he doesn’t use hormones.
He said he doesn’t miss working in the legal field, but he misses the people in the business. “But I don’t miss the stress of it.”
Joel’s advice to anyone entering the law practice is simple: “Take care of your law practice and it will take care of you. Return phone calls within 24 hours. Always be prepared.”
And for new cattle owners: “Be prepared to get dirty, wet and cold. Realize it’s not the safest thing, and you have to be careful. You have to be nurturing and you’ve got to be prepared to do some doctoring.”
Joel lost one cow that ate lantana, a fast-growing flower that’s often found in landscaping. He thought he had killed the stand of invasive species, but even after treatment with a herbicide, the roots can survive and spread.
Joel said he attempts to make sure he is buying gentle stock, since he works his cattle alone, and he invested in a good squeeze chute so he could handle his animals safely.
Most of his calves are sold at the Dominique stockyard in Opelousas, and he sells when the get to 350-425 pounds. Currently, he has three late-season calves.
About 70 acres is in pasture and the rest is used in a rice-crawfish rotation. Crawfish production has been slow this year, he said, but for some reason his fields have produced more than some of his neighbors’ fields.
The farm’s name is The Grove because of the pecan and oak groves, and it’s located on Grove Road. “It was just a logical name for the place.”
The first Gooches came to the American colonies from England, and one of them, Sir William Gooch, was colonial governor of Virginia for more than 20 years.
Gooch’s great grandfather came to Louisiana from Indian territory that would later become Oklahoma. Family lore has it that he was an eyewitness to a murder, and had to resettle after testifying at a trial.
Gooch’s grandfather, John Ed Gooch, the oldest of nine children who made the move from Oklahoma, eventually bought land in Vermilion Parish for a farm in 1899. It’s the same farm where Joel has his cattle herd. He has built a barn and apartment on the site of the original homeplace.
Cotton was first grown on the farm by Joel’s grandfather. “He transitioned to rice when it became an important commodity.”
Joel’s grandfather went to work for the Acadia-Vermilion Rice Irrigation Co. as superintendent of the canal system that supplied farmers with water to flood their rice fields.
Although his grandfather moved to Kaplan, he kept the farm and hired a man Nap Primeaux to tend to the property and work the land with a team of mules.
The canal system no longer exists, but Joel leases a 6-acre strip of land adjacent to his farm where one of the canals was located.
“My grandfather had a green thumb,” Joel said. “He planted most of the trees on this place.”
Large oaks line the farm, and a grove of pecan trees runs through a large pasture.
His grandfather enjoyed growing camellias, and often entered the annual shows at Blackham Coliseum.
The elder Gooch also grew giant bamboo that was sold to the tuna fishing industry, but eventually demand for that commodity died out. The stand of bamboo persisted for years and provided a good windbreak for cattle, Joel said, but eventually it succumbed to a virus.
Joel’s grandfather also had shorthorn cattle that he bought in Kansas. Even after John Ed died in 1956, the family maintained a cattle herd.
“Dad bought a heifer for me from Dr. L.O. Clark in Lafayette. That was my first foray into cows.”
Joel’s father, Dr. F.S. Gooch, taught botany at the Southwest Louisiana Institute, now University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Joel graduated from the University of Southwestern Louisiana, and he earned his law degree from Tulane in 1967. For almost 4 years, he worked as an FBI agent in Baltimore and New York, working on organized crime and labor racketeering cases. But he started looking at returning to Louisiana upon realizing he would have to work in New York City for 18 years before he could get transferred to another location. He returned to Lafayette, eventually starting the Allen and Gooch law firm in 1971.
When he bought the 140-acre farm from his aunt and uncle, he started a farming relationship with George Sagrera Jr. of the Sagrera cattle family well known for their large cattle drives in the marsh southeast of Pecan Island at Cheniere Au Tigre. (Joel rode on one of those cattle drives, and he was pictured in an issue of Gulf Coast Cattle magazine one year.)
George Sagrera wanted to start a herd on the Gooch place, but Joel said his role in the partnership would be minimal. “I had no time for it. The law is a jealous mistress.”
In 2010, when Joel retired from his law practice, Sagrera decided he wanted to get out of the cattle business, and he sold five choice heifers to Joel.
Sagrera, who also owns an agricultural flying service, handles the rice and crawfish operation on the farm.
Joel said when he decided to raise cattle, he realized that he needed to learn some of the finer points of raising cattle, so he enrolled in a Texas A&M beef short course. “Eventually, I did the LSU AgCenter Master Cattleman program and that was even more helpful.”
Gooch attends several LSU AgCenter field days to learn even more.
Andrew Granger, LSU AgCenter county agent in Vermilion Parish, said he has watched Gooch progress as a cattle producer. “He attends most of our educational events.”
Granger said it’s common for cattle producers to have an off-farm job or to be retired. Out of roughly 600 cattle producers in Vermilion Parish, 550 also are employed.
In addition to Sagrera, Joel credits veteran cattle producers Calvin LeBouef and Johnny Boudreaux for help.
Joel maintains 15 Braford heifers and a Beefmaster bull. Both breeds have some Brahma influence (or “ear”) that helps them endure Louisiana summers.
His 5-year-old bull’s sire was named Bulletproof, so Joel – violating his rule of not naming cattle – had Bulletproof in mind when he named his own bull . “His name is Pistol, and he’s packing.”
In addition to cattle, Joel has horses. “I’m one of those people who can’t explain why they keep large animals that can hurt you.” He keeps a quarter horse, Doc, he got from Sagrera at the farm, and he has horses at his home near Lafayette.
He said he has an emotional bond with The Grove because of the family heritage and the peaceful environment. “My heart is tied up in it. My grandchildren love this place. They love spending time out here.”
Joel recalled one day he was walking with grandson Ryan, who stopped in his tracks and asked, “What’s that noise?”
It took Joel a moment to figure out what foreign sound the boy was hearing for the first time. “I realized it was the crickets.”