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.”
Story and photos by Bruce Shultz
BREAUX BRIDGE – Barbara Melancon looks back 25 years ago and she still wonders how she kept the Atlas Feed Mill going.
“It’s been a hard road,” Barbara confided. “It’s not been easy.”
Her husband, Ronald “Boze” Melancon, had died of cancer, leaving her with three girls, ages 1, 3 and 4, and the business. “I didn’t know anything about a feed mill.”
But she credits an area businessman, Jessie Smith from the business mentorship organization SCORE, for getting her on track. “He gave me the confidence I needed. I had what it took but I just didn’t know it.”
After her husband died, she said, potential buyers were interested in purchasing Atlas, but she held out. “That’s all we had to make a living.”
And Boze had asked her to try to keep the business going until their daughters finished school. She kept her promise and all three daughters graduated from college. An Atlas employee, Randy LeBlanc, was her right-hand man until he died, and then she had to learn what he knew.
She learned one of the hardest parts of being a business owner when she had to fire an employee. “I always cry because it makes me sad. But every single person I’ve fired has always come back to say hello. They always know they’re welcome here.”
The Atlas Feed Mill originally was a rice mill, started in 1949 by Sidney Melancon, her husband’s father. While Boze was a junior in engineering at LSU, his father called and asked him in 1952 to come home and help with the business. The rice mill was converted into a mill to mix livestock feed to be sold in the business’ store where a wide range of farm-related items are sold. The name Atlas was chosen because it would show up first in the phone book’s Yellow Pages.
Fast forward to 1986. Barbara and Boze met at Mulate’s Restaurant (now Pont Breaux Cajun Restaurant). Boze could cut a rug on the dance floor, and so could Barbara, but Boze wanted more than just a dance partner. “I told him I can’t date you. You’re older than my daddy.”
But later that changed when she saw him at La Poussiere dance hall in Breaux Bridge. “He was dancing with everybody but me. I guess I got jealous.”
They married in were together 7 years and had three children before Boze died of cancer 3 months after the diagnosis.
She gives her workers much of the credit for keeping the business afloat. “God sent me the best crew in the world. I have a crew that can’t be beat.”
Several employees have worked at Atlas for more than 10 years. Operator David Noel has been there for 25 years, and manager Brandon Cormier has been with Atlas for over a decade, starting when he worked there in high school.
But she said her customers also deserve credit for sticking with her through the years, even during the toughest times.
She said the business suffered in 2010 after the BP oil spill. With the reduction in drilling, oilfield workers started cutting their expenses at home and many sold their animals which affected feed sales. After the flood of August 2016, many livestock owners reduced or eliminated their herds, and that also affected feed sales. Barbara also worried that the new competition in the area could put Atlas out of business. But she said she managed to compete with expertise and custom service.
She maintained her poise, and adapted. She continued with the parts of her business that were working and she added new things. She started stocking materials for organic gardening and lawn care. As the demand for backyard chickens grew, she started selling those too. Now schools kids are brought to the store to see the birds. “You cannot imaging kids who’ve never seen a chicken.”
She allows poultry owners to use the store for rooster shows, with owners coming from across the south to see who has the best looking birds.
But the feed mill continued to be the backbone of the business. Fresh feed is critical for many livestock owners, she said, and that’s an advantage held by Atlas, and no preservatives are used in Atlas mixtures. The feed mill mixes grains and ingredients for several different animals including sheep, horses, cows, pigs, chickens, goats and deer.
Customers can get custom-blended formulations for their livestock, and many owners of show animals insist that the mill keep their recipes secret.
Samples of the standard Atlas feeds are on display for customers to inspect. Customers come from as far away as Shreveport, east Texas and Mississippi to buy feed. The feed is sold in hardware and farm supply stores across Louisiana, and she is working on a deal in Mississippi.
She also is in the process of getting Atlas feed in Lowe’s stores.
Hay has been in short supply this year, but she said the longest Atlas went without a supply was 4 days.
In addition to the blended feed mixed by Atlas, the store also carries feed brands such as Purina, Nutrena and Lone Star. With crawfish season about to get in high gear, Atlas will be selling bait, and wire for making traps.
Barbara relies on outside expertise. “We work real closely with our county agent,” Barbara said, talking about Stuart Gauthier, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Martin Parish. “We love him to death. Stuart is great.”
Atlas is a 4-H sponsor.
She said Gauthier and his counterpart in Lafayette Parish, Stan Dutile, are major assets to the area’s agriculture community. “You call them, and they’re going to your farm or they’re going to look at your yard. I paid for all my workers to be in the Louisiana Master Cattleman Program with Stan.”
She’s called in advisers who recommended doubling their greenhouse inventory.
If a product bought at the store doesn’t work, she wants to know. “If you shop here, you’re looking for quality. If you’re going to put something on our shelves, it’s because it’s good.”
Barbara has experts give presentations on a wide variety of subjects, such as canning fruits and vegetables, animal husbandry, soap making and gardening.
At her daughters’ urgings, Atlas Feed Mill has a Facebook page, and she is amazed at the result. “I can’t tell you what it’s done for us.”
And the younger people who look at Facebook come to the store.
“I don’t know why people almost look at us like a tourist attraction.” She said it’s not uncommon for young people and city folks to visit the store with no intention of buying anything but to peruse the merchandise. For some older folks, it’s nostalgia. For younger people, or the millennials, it’s a glimpse at rural life. “I love it,” Barbara said. “I love to see people happy.”
Barbara speaks French, and it’s often an asset to talk with older customers who might be more comfortable with French. “We still have people who come here who garden in their 90s.”
Two of Barbara’s three daughters, Hailey and Kaitlyn, work with her. A third daughter, Marla, now lives in Georgia where she is a stay-at-home mom with her two young children.
Youngest daughter Kaitlyn has worked at Atlas for a year after graduating from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in marketing and interning at Lafayette advertising agencies. “I like working the cash register because our customers are so great.”
Kaitlyn said her mother taught her about treating customers as the No. 1 priority.
“Mom has always raised us to be quality first and to accommodate customer and be the best you can.” She said the business’ reputation started by her father and continued by her mother has created a solid base of word-of-mouth referrals. “It’s the most solid form of marketing but it’s hard to measure.”
Kaitlyn has started a sophisticated system of working with Google to fine-tune the sales system so Atlas Feed Mill shows up in the first hits of a Google search.
“That’s all above my head,” Barbara admits. “I just sit there and feel lucky it works.”
Kaitlyn said on every vacation, her mother has to include a side trip to a feed store to see how other similar businesses are operating.
Barbara has bought land adjacent to the mill for possible expansion, and she said Hailey is insisting that the business might open another store between Lake Charles and Lafayette.
Hailey worked in real estate in Texas for a few years, and she returned to Breaux Bridge to join the business. She saw how the business could be modernized. “I was very excited to put to use all the stuff I was learning in Texas.”
The business now has a web page at https://atlasfeedmills.com/, and it’s on Facebook and Instagram.
Hailey said her mother made it clear that her Dad never wanted to force his daughters to be a part of the business. “My Dad asked our Mom to always encourage us to do what we really were passionate about in life, and to allow us to find our own paths.”
Hailey said she realizes the old-school business approach of customer service needed to be kept. “Our business is built on a family that supports each other.”
She also realizes her mother is the central cog in the Atlas operation. “She does it all. She’s in every aspect of the business."
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
JEANERETTE -- Like most sugarcane farmers, Bret Allain has faced an muddy, uphill battle this year getting his cane crop out of the field and to the mill.
“It’s been a real challenge with all the rain we’ve had. It never dried up.”
Allain said if the weather stays dry for several days, he’ll move the harvest to fields with black, gumbo soil that needed time to dry up. “This year, I’ve run out of good ground.”
He recalls an even wetter harvest in 1972 when he first started working in the fields with his dad, Robert Allain. “From the first to the last day, there was hardly a day without rain.”
Tonnage is good this year, around 38 tons per acre, but sugar production is down, he said. Last year, the average sugar recovery was 225-228 pounds per acre for his farm. This year, he said, it’s about 209.
Allain said he got lucky with planting. Of 1,100 acres, he managed to get seed in place on 990 acres. He said once harvest started, he had to go back to planting after a few days of dry weather “There are people who don’t have half their crop planted.”
The cane harvest is expected to end sometime around Jan. 15-18, Allain said. That’s when the St. Mary Sugar Cooperative mill is expected to stop grinding for this season.
Allain is president of the mill that was built by his grandfather, A.V. Allain who also was a St. Mary Parish Police juror.
In 1994, the mill was expanded to a 15,000-ton capacity in a $34 million project.
The St. Mary Sugar Coop has started its own harvest group. “We had to. Everyone else was doing it.”
This year was not a good year for Allain’s 600-acre soybean crop. “I left 300 acres in the field. Crop insurance barely covered the cost of seed. And it was one of the best crops ever.”
He said the yield potential was 60-70 bushels per acre but the beans were damaged by excess moisture, and harvesting the beans would have damaged fields and required more time and money to repair ruts. “I just had to watch it rot in the field.”
Allain uses machines to plant sugarcane. He said it took four attempts at devising a planter that works reliably. “I’m pretty happy with these now.”
The Allain operation has 10 local employees and 10 H2A workers. “I’ve got good people. I don’t have to hold their hands.”
Allain has a partner, Bubba Gianfala. They started working together in 1996. This year, they are farming 5,000 acres, with more than 3,800 in sugarcane.
Allain said good varieties are keeping farmers in business. He said the 299 variety is leading the pack but 283 and 540 are good stand-by varieties. He said new varieties such as 183 looks promising.
”Varieties are our lifeblood. That’s why I fight so hard for the LSU AgCenter. If we don’t have the varieties, we don’t have the sugar industry.”
Allain swaps his farmer hat for legislator hat to fight for the LSU AgCenter. As a state senator for District 21, much of his constituency is agriculture related. The district includes all of St. Mary, and portions of Iberia, Lafourche, and Terrebonne parishes where sugarcane is the dominant crop.
He said he wants to make sure the LSU AgCenter is fully funded, and that was a challenge during the Jindal years. “We’ve been able to keep it pretty well fully funded.”
Allain said in the 2019 legislative session, he will fight again for agriculture again, particularly for maintaining funding for the AgCenter. “The AgCenter’s programs such as 4-H are important to a lot of people.”
Dr. Bill Richardson, LSU vice president of agriculture, said he is appreciative of Allain’s support for the AgCenter. “Senator Allain is a champion for Louisiana agriculture, and supports the LSU AgCenter to protect our state funding.”
He was first elected outright in 2011 to succeed former Sen. Butch Gautreaux of Morgan City. Next year, he will be able to run for his third and final term from 2020-2024. He has considered running for governor and it seems unlikely he would throw his hat in the ring, but he won’t flatly rule that out. “Never say never.”
He said he has a good chance of being chosen for a leadership role such as senate president. “There are some things I want to do in the senate.”
He said he has to fight for agriculture. He said an ongoing effort has to be made to maintain tax exemptions for agriculture spending on items such as seed, fertilizer, fuels and feed. No state has taxes on those expenses, he said, but the Louisiana legislature occasionally looks at that possibility to raise revenue. “Like I told them, if you tax those things, the price of food will go up.”
And those most affected by food price increases would be the inner-city poor, he said.
Allain said the plethora of special sessions in the past few years has not been good for his farming operations.
“Two years ago, I wasn’t here like I should have been because of all the special sessions. It costs me money to be in Baton Rouge.”
Allain said he was glad his measure passed to allow farmers to be on the roads with their tractors from sunrise to sunset instead of a half hour before sunrise and a half hour before sunset.
One area that he wants to bring up for legislation eventually involves right to repair farm equipment. Tractor makers have proprietary computer systems in their machinery with secret source codes that prevent farmers from working on their own equipment. A technician has to come out to the farm at a rate of $150 an hour to determine why a combine or a tractor isn’t working and it might just involve changing a $10 part, Allain said. The issue has been taken up successfully by legislators in other states, he said, but not without a fight.
“It’s becoming more and more of a significant issue,” said Jim Simon, director of the American Sugarcane League. “Not only is it an awkward inconvenience, it can be very costly.”
Simon said he and Allain have discussed the issue recently.
Simon and Allain were LSU classmates. “I’ve known Brett for almost 40 years. “He’s been a long-time advocate for agriculture, and sugarcane in particular. He’s always had a genuine interest in agriculture.”
Having a senator who also farms is an asset, Simon acknowledged. “When you have someone who knows the trials and tribulations of farming, it adds to the authority.”
He said Allain doesn’t shy away from speaking his mind, and a strong personality can be an asset in the legislature for getting a viewpoint across. “He’s been our go-to guy for protecting the funding for the LSU AgCenter.”
Simon also said Allain is an effective member of the League’s Board of Directors.
Allain and his wife, Kimberly, have two grandchildren, Flora and Marshall from their oldest daughter, Quinn, a physician in Mobile.
Daughter Emma is an engineer for Exxon now earning her MBA at the University of Texas.
Allain’s son, Robert Allain III, is working in the cane fields, currently growing his fifth crop. Robert is in a long family line of farmers dating back to the French immigrants of the 1700s when the Allains who were French Hugenots first came to Louisiana from Brittany.
When Allain isn’t in the legislature or the cane fields, you might find him in his woodworking shop. He cuts tenons, mortises and dovetails in cypress and oak to make finely hand-crafted furniture. Currently, he’s work on tables for family members. He also enjoys saltwater fishing, using a camp near Cocodrie as a base to pursue speckled trout and yellowfin tuna.
Allain, 60, said he doesn’t think much about retirement now. As a cane farmer, “I don’t know if any of us retire. My job right now is to help my son, like my father helped me and his father him him, gain the skills to be productive in this job.”
Greg Brown, chief engineer at the mill
David Thibodeaux, manager
Chuck Rodriguez, asst. engineer
Caldwell, purchasing agent
Story and Photos by Bruce Schultz
BATCHELOR – This year’s sugarcane crop has George LaCour excited, even though most of the harvest has been in muddy, sloppy conditions.
“Tonnage is exceptional,” he said. “The tonnage is way better than we figured.”
All the LaCour Farm cane is trucked to the Alma mill near New Roads, about 40 trucks a day. The mill had projected it would grind 1.5 million tons of sugar but it has been bumped up to 1.8 million tons, George said. “We’ve raised our estimate of the crop five times this year.”
He said this year’s crop has the potential to be another statewide record.
“This crop is probably the best example of where research pays off,” he said. Other cane-producing countries around the world often have to rely on varieties that have been used for 30 years, he said. He said variety 299 is the farm’s main variety on the farm’s 2,300 acres of sugarcane. “That’s what made this crop. It doesn’t want to quit. I can’t say enough about the research done by the American Sugar Cane League and the LSU AgCenter.”
Usually, he said, a variety’s yield decreases after the first year, but 299 doesn’t follow that trend. A good yield for second year stubble is 25 tons an acre, he said, but second year 299 has produced 40 tons.
George’s farm manager, Tony Deville, said the 283 variety has been good. “But I think it’s starting to fade away.”
The release of 183, with its mid-season maturity, will complement 299 well, Deville said.
LaCour said half of his cane crop is irrigated because of anticipated periods of drought, and no rain means the crop will stop growing. “If it stops growing one month, I just lost 18 percent of my growth.”
The sloppy fields make for an aggravating harvest, but George is more worried about the potential for a freeze. “Our concern right now is a freeze for the next month.”
Once a crop freezes, it stops growing and it doesn’t produce any additional sugar, he said.
George isn’t a one-man operation. In addition to his 20 employees working on harvests, his sister and daughters are partners in LaCour Farms.
It was only 5 years ago that his daughter, Catherine LaCour Floyd, graduated from LSU with a bachelor’s degree in communications disorders.
“I was not going to farm. I had planned to go to graduate school.”
Originally, she had anticipated making a career in speech therapy. But she decided she’d try farming, even though she knew it could involve a lot of long days. “I thought I’d give it a chance, and I never left.”
Her dad eagerly agreed to have her working on the farm. “He was more than happy. He said, ‘Let’s go. We need the help.’ “
She said her dad assigned her to start working in the office, joining George’s sister, Gertrude LaCour Hawkins, to handle the myriad details of paperwork.
“If this office doesn’t function, nothing functions,” Gertrude added.
Catherine said she didn’t have much background in agriculture except what she picked up as a child, and from her 4-H experiences showing animals.
“I had to learn everything. Dad wanted me to start in the office and learn the business end first,” Catherine said. “I’m still mostly in the office but some days it’s easier to be in a tractor instead of crunching numbers.”
Catherine said the work has been satisfying. “I like the challenge of it. Sometimes, it’s frustrating but there’s never a dull moment. You learn something new every day and it’s not boring.”
She and her husband, Blake Floyd, a chemical sales rep originally from Houma, settled in New Roads. “I’m very happy we made the decision to stay here.”
And now they have an addition with John Barrett, born Sept. 5. The pregnancy and birth kept Catherine off the farm for a few weeks, but she is ready to return.
George said his daughter has become skilled at handling the migrant labor bureaucracy. “She’s the H2A queen. We couldn’t do what we do without labor. The labor issue is probably the biggest issue for us.”
Finding local workers is difficult but it’s becoming a challenge to get foreign labor into the U.S., she said. The LaCour farm uses 28 foreign workers.
“The Alma sugar mill could have opened a week ago, but they couldn’t get the labor to run the mill,” George said.
He said sugar mill workers are allowed into the U.S. under the H2A seasonal agricultural labor program, but an effort is being made to place those workers under the H2B non-agricultural program.
George said with the big cane crop, many growers are worried that their workers’ visas will expire before the harvest finishes in early January, and Catherine is spending much of her time to get visa extensions.
Gertrude recognizes that working in a partnership with a sibling and a niece is not common. “You don’t have that too often in a sibling relationship. We look forward to seeing each other. George and I complement each other. Communication is critical to the whole thing.”
She credited their mother, Nell, for setting them up to succeed. “She left us with some significant guidance.”
“We like to say it’s a group effort. We communicate very well,” George said. “We just grew up with it. It’s in our blood and we love it. I don’t hunt, I don’t fish and I don’t play golf. It doesn’t get any better than playing in the dirt. If I’m not here, I want to be here.”
Gertrude said the farm’s cane crop of 2,500 acres has been transitioning out of the older 540 variety, mostly replaced by 299 but they still grow 283, 804 and 183. “We have a good mixture.”
They might get four years out of one planting, she said. “If it doesn’t have a good stand, we won’t keep it.”
Grinding at the Alma mill started Sept. 25, and it’s expected to continue until the first of the year.
“Alma is the No. 1 recovery mill in the state,” George said.
The LaCour Farm crop portfolio is one of the most diverse in Louisiana with cotton, corn, wheat, soybeans, sugarcane and crawfish.
They had harvests of cotton, sugarcane and soybeans going at once.
This year’s cotton crop on the LaCour farm was increased to 800 acres, compared to 200 acres in 2017. All their cotton is sent to the Tri-Parish Gin at Lettsworth.
George said this year’s cotton crop was good, producing 900 pounds per acre. But getting it out of the field with rainy weather was difficult. “I called it the harvest from hell.”
Their corn crop was good. “It did better than we thought,” Catherine said. “Considering all the rain we had, and then no rain, it did better than we thought.”
George said the corn yield averaged about 186 bushels an acre, and their 200 acres of wheat yielded 70 bushels an acre.
George said high levels on the Mississippi River delayed planting of soybeans until June but that was a blessing in disguise because those beans weren’t ready to harvest until later, spreading out the bean harvest until better conditions prevailed.
He said their 3,800-acre soybean crop yielded 50 barrels an acre, but much of it was cut when the beans were above 18 percent moisture and required lengthy drying time in the bins. He said he was able to harvest most of the crop before the heavy rains that damaged many farmers’ soybean crops and kept them out of the fields. George said he was able to sell his bean crop by early November.
He estimates the tariff imposed by China on U.S. soybeans will cost the farm in the neighborhood of $350,000-400,000.
The window for planting cane was narrow. The LaCour cane planting finished on a Friday at 2 p.m. the rains started 2 hours later. If the rain doesn’t stop, the silver lining is that crawfish ponds won’t require as much pumping.
Thunderstorms knocked down field after field of cane in Pointe Coupee Parish. George said billet harvesters have to slow down by about a third of the normal speed to cut downed cane. The old soldier harvesters couldn’t handle downed cane, George said. Because of that, cane varieties were developed with an emphasis on lodging resistance, he said, but now cane breeding can emphasize yield more.
He said the variety 804 appears to have a tendency to lodge.
The LaCour farm is used by the American Sugar Cane League to test new lines of cane, and to grow seed cane.
The wild hog factor determines where many of their crops are grown. “We’ve got some places where you can’t grow corn because of the hogs,” George explained. So those areas are used for cotton.
They’ve tried various methods of controlling hogs, but they’ve basically decided to coexist with the pigs. “There’s not enough traps you can buy,” Catherine said.
George was the chairman of the National Cotton Board last year, the only Louisiana cotton producer to serve in that position. The board works with an $82 million budget to increase demand for cotton, and to conduct research on cotton. U.S. cotton farmers pay a federally mandated check-off of $2.50 per bale.
Serving as Cotton Board chairman required extensive travel. “I was gone 45 days last year for the Cotton Board,” he said. Travel included overseas destinations such as Vietnam and Hong Kong.
He said overseas buyers like American cotton.
“It’s high quality,” George explained. “We have a very good delivery system.”
U.S. cotton is processed under U.S. Department of Agriculture standards. “They get what they buy when they buy U.S. cotton.”
Because all U.S. cotton is picked by machine, it is cleaner than hand-picked cotton, he said.
At 82 cents a pound, George said, cotton demand is high. “The Chinese have run out of cotton.
He said it’s anticipated that the Chinese will buy 7.5 million bales of overseas cotton.
China was the top cotton producer worldwide until the Chinese government placed more emphasis on growing food products. Now, India is the top producer followed by China and the U.S.
Louisiana, where cotton was once king, has slipped to 200,000 acres this year. George said 25 years ago, Louisiana’s cotton acreage reached 1.2 million acres but it has been as low as 114,000.
Changes in the farm bill led to a sharp decrease in Louisiana’s cotton acreage, he said, while prices for other commodities surged.
George is discouraged that younger farmers seem to avoid the political arena. “That’s disturbing to see our next generation take so much of this for granted. They don’t want to be involved, but trust me, I don’t want to be involved. When the industry calls on someone, they need to answer.”
He said he learned from Bob Soileau, with the LSU Leadership Program (George went through the program in 1991-92). He showed us the way. I’ve made more great friends in agriculture through the Leadership Program, Farm Bureau and the Sugar Cane League.”
Story and Photos by Bruce Schultz
FinLEBEAU – Joey Boudreaux and his Dad, Ike, were just two or three hours away from wrapping up their 2018 corn harvest.
“I was hoping to have a good day and finish,” Joey said.
Then came a breakdown in their combine. Always something.
But a glitch was preventing the combine header from lifting. It took 2 hours to find a short in a pesky wire to a solenoid, and that meant completing harvest wouldn’t be accomplished until the next morning.
Joey and Ike were glad to put the year behind them. They were disappointed with the yield of 150-160 bushels an acre. “We ought to be cutting 200 bushels,” Joey said. “The past several years, we averaged 200-plus bushels.”
Ike said the cold, wet spring interfered with the crop’s progress. “And it was so hot and dry during pollination, and it didn’t pollinate well.”
Dan Fromme, LSU AgCenter state corn specialist, said the 2018 Louisiana corn crop will be average. Planting was delayed as growers waited for their fields to dry. (Planting at the Boudreaux farm started in March.) Then the crop got off to a late start due to wet weather.
Once the crop had started growing, dry conditions were the norm for much of the state. The hot, dry weather had a negative effect on yields, especially on nonirrigated fields.
“The rains didn’t come early enough for many growers,” Fromme said. “The date you planted also made a difference.”
Dennis Burns, LSU AgCenter agriculture and natural resource agent in Catahoula, Concordia and Tensas parishes, said the weather may have also affected crop rotation schedules that could be responsible for some disappointing yields.
“Some of it went in as corn-behind-corn when normally we’re in a corn-to-soybean or corn-to-cotton rotation,” Burns said. “This year with all the rains that came, and it being later, the fields that dried out first were perhaps corn in 2017 and went back to corn.”
Burns also said that yields fluctuated from field to field.
“Yields are anywhere from low and a little disappointing to really good. It doesn’t matter whether it’s irrigated or not. It just varies according to the field,” he said. From their observations of corn fields across the state, both Fromme and Burns expect the final harvest figures to be average and will certainly not be a bin-buster for Louisiana corn farmers.
“I think it will be an overall average corn crop,” Burns said. “I think there’s been enough low-yielding areas to offset anything that has been above average.”
According the LSU AgCenter Ag Summary, the five-year state average for corn yields is approximately 178 bushels per acre, which includes a record yield of 186 bushels set in 2013 and nearly matched last year.
Joey said the yield probably would have been even lower if not for the improved corn genetics with improved drought resistance. But no corn hybrid has been developed with hog resistance. Large patches of downed corn show where the wild swine wreaked havoc on patches of the crop. Joey said a neighboring farmer killed more than 90 pigs this year.
The Boudreaux farm only had 350 acres of corn this year. “We usually plant more but it was so cold and wet, we didn’t push it,” Joey said.
With the price of corn falling, it’s probably a good thing they weren’t able to plant more back in March.
“Right now, we’re just in a stage where profit margins are low,” Joey said. “I’m not planning on making any equipment upgrades unless I have to.”
They planted 2,400 acres of soybeans, and so far the crop looks good. Joey said with the drop in price from the trade dispute with China, a good yield will be needed to make money.
“You almost have to cut 45- or 50-bushel beans.”
But he said their soybeans look good, with potential for high yields. He was pleased with the first day, harvested on Sept. 5 near Big Cane and yields ranged from 45 to 65 bushels. “I’d say it’s probably hanging in the mid-50s. I think the bean crop is going to be better than the corn crop.”
By the second day, further into the 250-acre field, the yield had dropped to the mid-40s. “If we can cut 50-bushel beans, we’ll be all right, but with 40-bushel beans, we’ll be eating Vienna sausage spaghetti.”
But he was at least relieved that Hurricane Gordon stayed away from south Louisiana, and the new draper header he had installed was working well.
Joey and Ike are leasing bins from a neighbor so they have the flexibility of holding onto their crop to take advantage of better prices. “We never did have bins before. We were at the mercy of the weather and the elevators.”
They sell most of their crop to Louis Dreyfus Co. on the Mississippi River in Port Allen and some to the Zen-Noh Grain Corp. at Convent, also on the river.
Joey said farms with 5,000-10,000 acres could make a profit with 40-bushel soybean yields but small operations will barely get by. He couldn’t help but think back to the days when his father raised a family on an 800-acre farm.
“Nothing really looks good right now except cotton and sugarcane,” Joey said.
Cotton is risky, he said, and he’s not sure about getting started in sugarcane.
Joey said his oldest girl, Emma, age 10 wants to be a farmer, but he’s not sure he will encourage her. “It’s stressful. There are so many things out of your control.”
And the days of a slow-paced life on the farm are gone, he said. “It’s so fast-paced. Everything has to happen fast. Unfortunately, we don’t have the time to teach our kids like when I was growing up. I started driving a tractor at 8 years old.”
Joey said despite the challenges, he still enjoys farming. “You have a lot of freedom. You are your own boss. Of course, you’re probably harder on yourself if you’re the boss.”
Ike insisted that Joey get a degree, even if he wanted to farm. “My dad was the same way,” Ike said. “You had to get some kind of degree.”
Ike obtained a civil engineering degree, and he did survey work on the side that included the southern stretch of the construction of Interstate 49.
In pursuit of the mandatory degree, Joey almost became Dr. Boudreaux, but an accident in 2009 changed all that. While deer hunting in the St. Landry Parish woods, his tree stand came loose when a pin holding one of two chains popped out. A safety strap held one of his legs and he was dangling in the air until he could grab a tree limb and take some of the pressure off his suspended leg. He hung by one leg for several hours, 30 feet in the air until he finally fell to the ground. If he hadn’t been able to use a cellphone to call Ike for help, it’s likely he would not have survived, but recovery from the severe back injury was a lengthy ordeal.
His recuperation also hampered his work on a doctoral degree in weed science under Dr. Jim Griffin at LSU, so he opted to graduate in 2011 with a master’s degree instead of a doctorate.
Joey said his graduate work involved a study of the use of Gramoxone, or paraquat, as a harvest aid on soybeans. He said the research was gratifying because it was an applied project that helped many farmers, especially sugarcane farmers who want to get their bean crop out early enough to allow sugarcane planting. “Our work showed you could use Gramoxone to dry beans down when it looked like they weren’t going to dry down.”
Joey said he uses Gramoxone on every acre of his soybeans, and it helps in fields where some areas are late to mature after the rest of the crop is ready for harvest. “If you spray Gramoxone, you can get everything ready at the same time.”
Joey said he studied all aspects of farming at LSU, with extensive learning about diseases and insects as well as weed science. “I tried to tailor my master’s degree as a well-rounded student.”
Ike decided when Joey started working on the farm, it was time to turn the reins over to his son. “He’s the boss. I said, ‘You run the business. I’ve done it long enough.’ “
Joey talks with his dad about major financial decisions, but it’s Joey who decides the day-to-day issues like what varieties to grow and when to spray fungicides. “You can’t have two bosses. One person has to make all the decisions.”
Ike, who started farming in 1973, has done more in his farming career than just work the fields. He has been active in the United Soybean Board, elected national chairman in 2008, and he served on the national Soybean Promotion Board. “Here’s a little farmer who becomes a chairman of a national organization. It was a very humbling experience.”
In 2009, he chaired the Soybean Exporting Council that showed Chinese agriculture and trade officials how soybeans could be used for animal feed for poultry and hogs. “We worked with China probably 8 or 10 years.”
He recalled a Chinese official advised them that just because a deal was signed, doesn’t mean trade will start immediately. “The negotiations begin after the contract is signed.”
Ike said developing new markets such as China was made possible through the national soybean check-off program. “It’s amazing what the check-off has done.”
He said the check-off board of directors had a goal of finding 2-3 new products each year that would use soybean oil. And it continues to benefit farmers, he said. The check-off program has been used to help develop a new product, Roof Maxx, a coating that can strengthen and extend the life of conventional asphalt shingles.
Now soybeans with high oleic oil are being grown in the Midwest where processing plants have been built to extract the oil to be used for cooking, Ike said, and farmers are getting a 50-cent premium for growing those soybeans. “From what I’ve seen, it’s going to be a better oil. I think eventually, all soybeans will be high oleic.”
Vince Deshotel, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Landry Parish, said the Boudreauxs set a good example for the farming community. “They’re good farmers. They’ve grown their operation through the years with a lot of hard work.”
He said Joey is active in the St. Landry Parish Farm Bureau chapter, and Ike’s work on
the United Soybean Board has helped boost Louisiana’s status as an agricultural state.
“They have found their place in the industry as far as being active.”
Story by Bruce Schultz
MIDLAND - Farming 10,000 acres sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but the Thibodeaux brothers and sons have it figured out.
They meet daily at 6:30 a.m. to plan their day and to decide who’s going to do what.
The brothers are Randy, Dale and Steven. Randy’s son, Eric, and Dale’s son, Ross, also are partners in the Thibodeaux Ag Group.
Just keeping up with the acreage is a major undertaking. Their meeting room looks like the headquarters for an army on the attack. Several large dry eraser boards are kept to record what has been done to each field, and to show work assignments. Notes are made on the board when anything is done on a field. Ross maintains a record on his computer.
The Thibodeaux brothers started farming in 1980, and they moved their operation to the Midland area in 1983.
Dale and Randy said they never imagined they would farm this much land, but the size is not out of the ordinary considering there are five partners. “An operation like this, you don’t just jump into it overnight,” Randy said. “Opportunity just came about and you don’t turn it down,” he said. “You’ve got to have almost a thousand acres of rice and other things to survive.”
The Thibodeaux have 5,000 acres of rice this year and 3,300 acres of soybeans. They harvested crawfish on about 1,500 acres last year.
Randy said the 2016 price was around $17 a barrel, the same as it was when they started farming, but now expenses are considerably more. “Your net profit per acre is less, so you have to have more land to make a living.”
He said the farm grew in increments. “It was a gradual thing, so we worked into the growth.”
They have cut back on acreage some years, he said, but they increased when Ross and Eric decided they wanted to farm.
They still farm some of the land that their father farmed 60 years ago. The other land that they farm has been farmed by them for between 20 and 50 years. About 80 percent of their farming is in Acadia Parish and the rest in Vermilion.
Dale is quick to credit their relationships with landlords for success, as well as their lender. “Our landowners and the First South Farm Credit have helped us along the way.”
Dale said they personally check fields daily to monitor a crop’s progress and to maintain adequate water levels. “You have to do that. We are in the fields every day.”
He said he also observes how a crop has performed when he’s running a combine. “You can see a lot by cutting a field.”
Dale graduated with a business degree concentrating in accounting from the University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1978. He went to work for Amoco during the oil boom. “I just wanted to try something different.”
But he was working night and day, and he realized he would have to move to Houston or Chicago if he continued his career with Amoco. “I figured if I have to work this much, I might as well go to work on the farm.”
He’s always thinking about figures, so while he’s running a combine he often runs numbers in his head to figure out how to make the partnership a little more profitable. “You’ve got to figure out how much money you’re making per acre.”
This year, the rice crop looks good so far.
On a hybrid field, Ross said the combine yield monitor showed a range of 52-62 barrels an acre. “Yields so far look like they’re right up there with what we had in 2014, but not quite as good as 2013.”
The Thibodeauxs use large carts, with each one hauling enough grain to fill half of a trailer.
The Case combines are equipped with tracks to ease harvesting in muddy conditions and reduce the rutting factor.
They sell their rice to Supreme Rice Mill. They have a 140,000 barrel drying capacity at their farm headquarters and an elevator at Midland.
Ross said 85 percent of their rice is hybrids, and the remainder was planted in Provisia to address a red rice/weedy rice problem. Ross said the new technology was used in some of their worst fields, and it appeared to work well. He said it worked especially well in a 160-acre field that had a bad infestation. “It was our worst field, and there is not one weedy rice plant.”
Provisia is maturing later than the hybrids by about 10 days, but LSU AgCenter rice breeder Adam Famoso said that was to be expected, and the next Provisia release will have an earlier maturity.
Initial reports from other farmers growing Provisia have reported yields in the mid-40 barrels.
Ross said the fields will be followed up with soybeans next year.
Planting started March 15 and continued through mid-April. All their fields were drill-seeded. All rice seed was treated for insect control, Ross said. Insect and disease pressure was light this year, he said. Only one field had to be sprayed for stinkbugs.
Their Case combines are outfitted with a Monsanto system that has a color-coded monitor showing yields as a field is cut. Ross can later compare the yield map to a map that showed nutrient levels from grid sampling every 3-4 years.
Ross hopes that by Sept. 15, all rice will be cut in time to start on 3,300 acres of soybeans. After that crop is harvested, it will be time to start on second-crop rice, being grown on 90 percent of this year’s acreage.
He said this year’s soybean crop appears to be a good one, so far. “As far as it looks right now, it’s one of the best soybean crops we’ve ever had, but with beans you can’t count on them until they are in the bin.”
To keep up with a farm of this size, it’s essential that the Thibodeauxs hire good workers. They have 11 local men on the payroll, and some have worked for them as long as 30 years. Also, they have a dozen H2A workers and some have been working with the Thibodeauxs for more than 15 years.
Dale said they learned from their father to hire workers to get everything done on time. That enabled him, Randy and Steve to play sports, but they would have to ride their bicycles 3 miles to Morse for baseball practice.
And he said they also learned from their father to check water themselves.
The Thibodeauxs have 32 pumps, with 55 percent powered by electricity and the rest by diesel. They use mostly surface water.
They will have crawfish on about 1,800 acres in 2019, a slight increase from 2018. “Last year was an average year, nothing spectacular. Not as good as the year before,” Ross said.
They have acquired a fleet of airboats for harvesting crawfish, eliminating the problem of ruts left by paddle boats that causes more dirt work.
Jeremy Hebert, LSU AgCenter county agent in Acadia Parish, said he enjoys working with the Thibodeauxs.
“They are excellent farmers. They are some of the most progressive farmers in the area,” Hebert said. “It seems like they are always on the forefront of the cutting edge of new technology.”
“They take farming serious, and they don’t cut corners.”
He said Ross is becoming more active in the rice industry, and he serves as secretary-treasurer of the Acadia Parish Rice Growers Association. “They’re supportive of the LSU AgCenter and always willing to help out.”
Ross graduated from LSU with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 2007.
By age 10, Ross had started driving a tractor, and he was running a combine by his mid-teens. He said he wasn’t always sure he would be a farmer. “I liked it, but when I went to college I didn’t know for sure if I was going to farm.”
Dale said he knew Ross wanted to be a farmer about mid-way through college.
Ross is a graduate of the LSU Ag Leadership Program, and he is currently enrolled in the Rice Leadership Program. Ross said he enjoys farming because of the variety of work. “I enjoyed it more and more. I like the change. Every day is something different. You’re never doing the same thing two days in a row.”
He said his favorite time is late spring after the crop is planted and it’s time to flood up.
Ross, 34, and Eric, 24, are fourth generation farmers.
There might be future farmers in the family lineage. Ross and his wife, Katie, have a 2-year-old boy, Thomas, and a girl is on the way. Eric and his wife, Cecilia, have a boy, William, and three girls. And Randy has a step-grandson Brayden who is 10.
The Thibodeauxs can trace their ancestors to Nova Scotia, where they found the grave marker for Pierre Thibodeaux, their ninth great-grandfather who had a grist mill. More ancestors later migrated to Louisiana. Dale and his wife Joni ventured to Nova Scotia last year to see where their ancestors lived.
How are decisions made among 5 partners? “We just talk about it, and then make a group decision.”
Ross said they each have their specialties. His include precision agriculture, overseeing spray rig assignments and choosing rice and soybean varieties.
Steven is the mechanic, doing most of the repair work on the equipment, but he also can be found in the field during the growing season.
Randy is stationed at the dryer when loaded trucks arrive with harvested rice.
Dale works the numbers, and he too will be in the field.
Randy’s wife, Marlene, also helps Dale in the office to help keep the business going.
Randy’s talent in the kitchen has reached a nationwide audience. The USA Rice staff connected him with the Sara Moulton cooking show, and a segment was videotaped that featured Randy cooking crawfish etouffe in 2016.
Of course, the show also included a tour of the Thibodeaux rice and crawfish farm, and Moulton went for a ride in a crawfish boat.
“It was all off the cuff,” Randy recalled. “There was no script.”
The show wanted to feature Randy’s recipe, complete with the amounts for each ingredient. That was a problem, Randy said. “I’ve never measured anything in my life when it comes to cooking.” But the cooking show host needed the amounts for a recipe to post on her website. Randy’s recipe can be found at saramoulton.com/2016/04/randy-thibodeauxs-crawfish-etouffee.
Moulton wanted that an extra set of ingredients be prepared for the shoot, and Randy said she explained that was a precaution just in case the first batch of etouffe turned out bad. But Randy insisted that wouldn’t be necessary. “I said, ‘Sarah, we don’t mess up.’ “
Story by Karl Wiggers and Neil Melancon
DIXIE - Usually for Jacob and Kari Rumbaugh, each morning begins with a long list of daily chores on their farm in Dixie, La.
On June 22, however, they woke up in New Orleans as the 2018 winners of the Young Farmer and Rancher Achievement Award. The award was presented to them at the Louisiana Farm Bureau’s Organizational Awards during its annual convention.
The Rumbaughs were chosen from a highly competitive field for their dedication to farming, family and Farm Bureau activities that exemplify Louisiana’s farming community.
“We’re very honored to be selected among our peers to receive an award like this,” Jacob says. “I know how progressive other young farmers and ranchers are in our area, so it means a lot.”
Not only do they manage 1,300 acres wheat, soybeans, corn and cattle pastures, but they ride herd on two young children as well, Ada and Reid.
Kari says winning this award reinforces what they teach their children everyday on the farm.
“The kids can see all of our hard work has come to fruition,” she said. “It makes the days that are hard worth it when this type of thing happens.”
Having their children with them on the farm is an integral part of their success, both as farmers and parents, Jacob said.
“Growing up we hoed cotton,” he said. “You get see the value of a dollar, you get to see the value of hard work. It really sets you up well for really any type of life. So with the kids, its the same way. They can see how hard we work.”
Jacob may have grown up around farming, but went to college and became a civil engineer. He left a successful engineering partnership and transitioned to full-time farming in 2013. Kari is also a college graduate and puts her business degree to work for the farm every day, especially when it comes to their herd of 320 cattle.
“Checking water, checking fences, checking for sick calves,” she said, listing off some of those daily chores involved with raising beef cattle. “I started keeping an electronic record of all of our calving.”
The Rumbaughs got into farming in 2008 when their parents liquidated their cattle herd to help them start with what Jacob describes as a “clean slate.” Jacob’s father, George, said not only have they returned this investment, but their skills in engineering and business have helped the farm thrive.
“Its pretty nice to have somebody that knows tech,” George Rumbaugh said. “When there’s a problem, I say, ‘Jacob!’ so that works real well. Now, we have the software and Jacob writes all the programs himself.”
The Achievement Award recognizes not only the couple’s farm prowess, but their service to the community at large. Kari said it’s reflected in the way her kids see how important agriculture is in the world.
“We actually sold some of our corn to Tyson, and the other day, my daughter and I were in Sam’s and she saw a big bag of Tyson chicken in the freezer and she got it out and she said, ‘Mom look, its Tyson chicken!” Kari said. “‘These chickens ate some of our corn.’ So that was really cool for me to know that she knew that and that she was proud that she had a part in that.”
“There’s value in what we do,” Jacob added. “We’re feeding the world. There’s two percent of us out there now in the United States that feeds the rest of the country, and to me there’s a lot of value. Its just a sense of pride, a sense of hard work. You know, pride in what your doing.”
As part of their prize package, the Rumbaugh’s will receive $35,000 courtesy of the Southern Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company . In addition, they’ll come back to New Orleans in January of 2019 to compete for the American Farm Bureau YF&R Achievement Award.
Story and photos by Bruce Shultz
LAFAYETTE – The nonprofit Acadiana Food Hub is the germination of a seed that grew in Zach McMath’s fertile imagination.
On this Wednesday evening, he’s receiving orders for customers using Waitr, the online food delivery service, for locally grown fruit and vegetables. Waitr is usually for ordering online from restaurants, but McMath convinced the company to deliver produce as well.
Farmers bring their product to the Food Hub’s location off University Avenue. When an order is placed, the items are bagged for Waitr drivers to pick up and deliver to customers.
“The idea is to give farmers more markets.”
Business isn’t brisk, with only a few orders trickling in, but McMath is ok with the low volume given that the service has only been available for 3 weeks.
“It’s pretty slow, but it’s all about getting the word out. It’s a marketing game and a social media game. It’s really about people knowing we’re out there.”
It’s only one of several endeavors being undertaken by the Acadiana Food Hub.
His family has owned a vending machine business, M&M Sales, so he has a close familiarity with the food trade. He recalls the inspiration for starting the Food Hub came when he was making smoothies at the farmer’s market at the Horse Farm in Lafayette, now being converted into a park.
He said one of his usual customers was then-Mayor Joey Durel, who remarked to him that Lafayette only had a two-day fresh food supply, and much of that food is trucked to Louisiana.
That got McMath thinking that untapped opportunities exists that could be filled by local growers.
The hub has several projects. It provides incubator kitchens for people with new food products to perfect their ideas. The Hub connects food growers with sellers, and it has persuaded a local agency, the Lafayette Economic Development Authority to award grants for individuals aiming at starting their own food businesses.
David Page received one of the $5,000 LEDA grants and he is using it to start an oyster mushroom business, something that McMath said is missing from the local food market. “There’s nobody servicing this area.”
Page has bought a shipping container that he plans to convert into a nursery. “I’m new to the agriculture world,” Page admits. “But I’d like to be the guy who can produce mushrooms steady, year-round. I think I’m stumbling across something I can base a career on.”
Kerry Kennedy said the Food Hub facilities enabled him to get his Basin Blend non-salt seasoning product on the market. “I was making it at home and I couldn’t sell it.”
Kennedy explained that food prep regulations require him to make his product in an approved commercial kitchen. Acadiana Food Hub came to the rescue with the approved kitchen for rent.
“Having a commercial kitchen enabled me to make it in larger batches, and under the required regulations,” Kennedy said.
Now his product is available throughout Lafayette at several groceries including Nunu, Fresh Pickin’s Produce and Little Veron’s. The website www.basinblend.com shows all sales outlets.
John Hackney of Wing Fingers said the Food Hub’s commercial kitchen provided approved preparation space when the business started as a food truck serving spiced chicken wings and burgers.
“There was no commercial kitchen in Lafayette for rent. They (Acadiana Food Hub) opened around the time we opened,” Hackney said. “We were their first customer. We wouldn’t have been able to run a food truck if it weren’t for them.”
Wing Fingers has since become a fixed restaurant at 1043 Johnston St. in Lafayette.
McMath wants to get fresh food to neighborhoods that no longer have groceries, and he sees the Food Hub’s role to connect those consumers with area food sources. “The whole thing is a decentralized food system, so it does harken back to your milkman.”
A big problem for food producers is complying with food and health code requirements, and the Food Hub helps with that process. Warehouse space also is available for budding companies to store equipment and inventory.
The Food Hub also helps growers and food start-ups get certified under the Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP, that is required by most buyers. A GAP audit can be quite costly, but McMath said the Food Hub has pooled producers to reduce the expense. The Food Hub also helps producers to comply with the federal Food Safety Modernization Act.
“We try to break down those barriers,” McMath said.
McMath is using his vending machine experience to place fresh vegetables in vending machines located at large corporations in Lafayette, such as Stuller Settings and CGI, for their employees, as well as public locations such as Girard Park.
The Food Hub has partnered with Helical Holdings, a Lafayette-based company that builds hydroponic greenhouse systems. The company’s first greenhouse was installed in Lafayette at a small Catholic school, John Paul the Great Academy. Students use the greenhouse to learn about growing food, and to start seedlings for their own vegetable garden.
Kohlie Frantzen started Helical Holdings with Dylan Ratigan, a former MSNBC host.
Frantzen is a Lafayette native who previously was a prosecutor in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. He returned to Lafayette after Hurricane Katrina with his wife, Elise, daughter of the former Crowley mayor, Isabella delaHoussaye.
Frantzen said the greenhouse system has many of the standardized systems found in the oilfield where his father, the late Dan Frantzen, a co-founder of Stone Oil Co.
Frantzen and Ratigan teamed with and the Patriots Farmers of America at Berryville, Virginia, setting up a greenhouse there to help veterans learn the business of growing food as a post-military career.
Frantzen said he originally had the idea of bringing Helical Outposts to Third World countries such as Haiti, but then he realized the facilities were needed just as much in many areas of the U.S.
The John Paul the Great greenhouse, run by Shawn Istre, produces leafy vegetables and tomatoes year-round. The roots of all the plants never touch soil. All nutrients are monitored to maintain the proper levels, and the plants are fed through an irrigation system.
Because the plants are not grown in soil, the produce cannot be sold as organic, even though no fungicides, insecticides or herbicides are used. Frantzen is fine with that because he doesn’t want soil to touch the plants. “I don’t ever want to be associated with soil.” He said soil-borne diseases cause problems for plants and people but the hydroponics system avoids that.
Gloves are required for anyone to touch a plant inside the greenhouse. All activities such as harvesting and feeding the plants, are carefully recorded. Grow lights are only used to get seedlings to a size for transplanting into the trays to grow into mature plants. A water filtration system handles 2,000 gallons of water a day.
A solar backup system is part of the Helical Outpost that has been designed to be manufactured as a complete hydroponic greenhouse system that will fit inside of a shipping container. When it arrives, the parts are assembled, 6-mil plastic sheeting covers the greenhouse frame, and the shipping container is used as a control center with Wi-Fi, satellite communications and an 11-kilowatt solar system.
A greenhouse like the one at the Lafayette school runs about $200,000, but Frantzen said that is a far cry from the cost of a farmer getting started in conventional row-crop agriculture. And the greenhouse can be relocated.
Istre, who had no agricultural background, said running the system is easy. Monitoring temperature and humidity is done with a metering system. Nutrient levels and water pH are carefully maintained.
Much of the process is following the protocol established by Helical Holdings, but that’s only part of the process of growing food with the system.
“Learning to talk to the plants is a different story,” said Istre. “The plants speak their own language.”
Istre said changes have to be made as seasons change. The greenhouse and hyddroponics system allows him to grow lettuce when the temperature is 100 degrees outside the greenhouse. Because the lettuce is harvested with roots intact, the leaves stay fresher longer.
Lettuce and tomatoes and other plants grown in Istre’s greenhouse are sold through the virtual grocery and delivered by Waitr, and several restaurants in town use its products including Saint Street Inn, Pamplona, Café Josephine, Bread and Circus and Social. Lafayette groceries offer their products, including Champagne’s, Breaux’s Mart and Sandra’s Grocery.
McMath hopes to have a Helical greenhouse as a proof-of-concept project to supply vegetables for eight Lafayette Parish public schools by the start of the coming school year.
As McMath sees it, the food infrastructure potential has been vibrant in Acadiana. Growers are producing food but they need more ways to get their food on consumer plates, some people want to be growers and don’t know where to start, and consumer demand for locally grown food is strong. The Food Hub is making those connections.
“It’s a chicken and egg situation, and I just built the cage,” McMath said.
You can read more about the Acadiana Food Hub on the website www.acadianafoodhub.com.
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
BELL CITY – It’s a nice cool spring day, but rice farmer Mark Zaunbrecher is anxious for warmer weather.
“I hope I start sweating. That means the rice will start growing.”
But it would be a few days of unusually cool weather before he would raise a sweat.
Since he planted starting March 14, Zaunbrecher had been expecting the crop to take off, but the young seedlings were stalled by consistently chilly weather.
By late April, he would have started flooding fields but even the earliest planted rice was only at the 3-4 leaf stage.
Zaunbrecher and fellow farmers across south Louisiana were eagerly awaiting a warm-up.
The average temperature for Lake Charles in April was 2.5 degrees below normal, according to the National Weather Service. At 65.9 degrees, the average temperature in April was only .6 degrees warmer than the average March temperature.
That all changed after May 1, with temperatures climbing into the high 80s.
Dr. Dustin Harrell, LSU AgCenter extension rice specialist, said rice responded favorably to the warmth. “It has really helped the rice rebound. We went from winter to summer pretty quick.”
He said dry conditions have provided a good chance for farmers to apply fertilizer and herbicides.
Harrell said the warm, dry weather allowed farmers in north Louisiana to get their rice planted quickly.
Zaunbrecher is in charge of growing rice, soybeans and forage for Sweet Lake Farm Partners, owned by the Leach Family of Lake Charles. He has worked for the company 28 years, but has decided to retire after the 2019 crop.
Dr. Steve Linscombe, retired director of the Rice Research Station at Crowley, said Zaunbrecher is an asset. “Mark is a true leader of the Louisiana rice industry. He has very deep roots in southwest Louisiana rice production.”
Linscombe said Zaunbrecher has been an early adopter of new technology. “He has been a leader of the blackbird control program, and under his guidance this program has lessened the severity of bird damage for rice producers throughout the region.”
Zaunbrecher is a fifth generation farmer. His father, Phillip Zaunbrecher, farmed on Lacassine Co. land near Hayes. “I was born and raised there.”
He went straight from high school to the field, and he farmed on his own from 1973 until 1990 when he did some consulting work and that’s when he was hired by Sweet Lake Land Co.
Zaunbrecher said he figured his way of growing rice 10 miles to the east of the Sweet Lake area would be no different in the Sweet Lake area, but he was wrong.
“It’s been a challenge. Most of what I knew when I came here did not apply. You can go 3 miles north of here and it’s different.”
For one thing, he said, the area doesn’t seem to get as much sunlight which slows growth.
The area even had its own soil problem, which came to be known as Calcasieu disorder. The ground would release sulfurous gas, and plants would die after roots turned black. The only solution was to drain a field. But Zaunbrecher said the problem hasn’t been found in about 12 years.
Thunderstorms seem to dump a higher amount of rainfall on the Sweet Lake area that complicates fungicide applications. “We had more than 100 inches of rain last year.”
When it’s wet like it was last year, airplanes can’t use Sweet Lake airstrips because of the soggy ground, adding to the complications.
The area’s soil drains poorly, he said. “You get an inch of rain over here, it takes a week to dry. If you work it too damp, it just gums up.”
And then the wind is always blowing so rice has to be tall enough to withstand wave action. Zaunbrecher figures when he does flood this year, the level will have to be brought up gradually as the plants grow out of their stunted condition.
Zaunbrecher said saltwater is a problem in the area. During severe droughts, salt starts to show up in well water. After hurricanes, like Rita in 2005, saltwater gets pushed north.
After Rita, he tried to grow a crop but the salty soil yielded a crop he’d rather forget. It took a couple of years before the land was able to produce good yields, he said.
Zaunbrecher said he has talked to old timers about farming in the early days, and they recall having to clear crabs from the wooden flumes used to move water, and that told him salt has long been a problem in the area.
He’s worried about the water for this year’s crop. “Our surface water is as low as it’s ever been. It’s going to be interesting when we do start pumping.”
Many of the fields have had rice grown for more than a century. Remnants of irrigation canals from the early days of rice farming still convey water to those fields. The Sweet Lake Canal which draws water from Lacassine Bayou remains viable, providing water to Sweet Lake Farm Partners, and other farmers in along its 16-mile reach. Each year, the canal is drained and sprayed for weed control.
Rice grown on Sweet Lake Farm property is in a 2-year rotation, with a fallow year followed by a crop. Soybeans are grown on some rice acreage, but he said weather is a factor when it comes to planting. “The last 2 years, we’ve only been able to plant beans two days.”
He said last year’s soybean yield averaged about 32 barrels.
Ryegrass and bermudagrass for the cattle operation at Sweet Lake are grown separately from the rice ground.
The company is slowly getting into the crawfish business as the infrastructure improvements are made gradually.
Last year, he said the average yield for Sweet Lake was 47 barrels dry. “I’m proud of that for the year we had, especially rice going underwater three times.”
He said the first flood came in the spring when rice was young, followed by a tropical event in June that brought flooding rains. The season ended with Hurricane Harvey that flooded the second crop, making much of it unharvestable. “It was just an ocean. You couldn’t see anything.”
RiceTec hybrids with the Clearfield trait are used on all the Sweet Lake Farm rice acreage, which totals 2,020 this year, down about 300 acres because of a pipeline being laid across some of the property.
Zaunbrecher said panicle blight is the worst disease for the area, and all of the hybrid is treated with fungicides.
To lessen the likelihood of disease and to reduce excess chaff, the amount of nitrogen is kept to 120-130 units per acre, applied with a precision ag equipment using data from grid sampling.
Usually, he said, about 90 percent of the acreage is ready for planting with a no-till drill, but the wet fall prevented most of the field work. “This year I think I had 20 percent of my ground ready to go.”
He said during his first 9 years at Sweet Lake, he wasn’t able to plow until the spring and much of the time he had to use a water buffalo and a chisel plow. “Working ground here is not a right, it’s a privilege.”
Zaunbrecher uses Dermacor on all rice seed to address insect problems that include rice water weevils and borers. In addition, all seed is treated with AV-1011 bird repellent because of the high populations of blackbirds and ducks in the area. (A sister company, Sweet Lake Land, has a duck hunting and fishing operation also at Grosse Savanne.) “As soon as duck season ends, I like to drain everything and get them (ducks) on their way.”
Zaunbrecher’s efforts to get birds out of the rice fields led him to getting a federal firearms license in 1985 so he could buy guns and ammo wholesale.
If someone is looking for a particular gun, he can find it. Or if someone buys or sells a gun out-of-state, Zaunbrecher can use his firearms license to ship and receive. But he only works with people he knows, and, “I don’t keep any inventory.”
“Generally when they come to me, they can’t find it anywhere else.”
During the last 8 years many guns and ammo was difficult to source because of a buying frenzy, he said, but now firearm inventories are back to normal and the ammo supply is better, he said. But .22-caliber ammo is still in short supply.
That interfered with Zaunbrecher’s favorite caliber for scaring birds away. He doesn’t just shoot a couple of rounds. It’s more like a couple dozen from a rifle with a banana clip.
“My record is three bricks of .22 ammo in one day.” (A brick contains 500 rounds.)
He said he was shooting so many .22 rounds that he would wear out the rifling of a Marlin .22-caliber.
Different guns are more difficult to clean, he said. “When it comes to a .22, you can’t beat a Ruger.”
He enjoys shooting the AK-47, and he said the loud report is quite effective at scaring ducks from a field. “That’s the ultimate Mexican squealer gun.”
Zaunbrecher enjoys deer hunting, and he goes to Missouri and Texas to chase whitetails. He doesn’t have the passion for duck hunting anymore, mostly because duck hunting doesn’t seem to be as good as he remembers.
After retirement, he’ll have a lot more time to work with guns and to work on his two show cars, both Plymouth GTXs, one from 1967 and another from 1969, with 440 cubic inch engines and 4-barrel carbs.
And he hopes he and his wife, Alicia, will be able to travel.
Story and photos by Bruce Shultz
EUNICE – This 30-acre field might look like a weed patch to some, but to Vernon Fuselier, it’s a work in progress to recreate a habitat that once covered southwest Louisiana.
“This is native Louisiana plants,” he said. “Nothing has been brought in from outside Louisiana.”
Fuselier, a third-generation farmer, said he just assumed that the land in southern Louisiana had once been forest that was cleared for growing crops.
He credits a neighbor, retired LSU-E botany Professor Malcolm Vidrine, with introducing him to the native plants.
Vidrine said Fuselier took off with the concept. “He’s our best ambassador at this moment.”
Vidrine recalls first that Fuselier was passing by his residence one day, and Fuselier stopped and asked about the tall plant growth in Vidrine’s yard. Vidrine explained he was growing native prairie plants, and Fuselier asked if the vegetation would make good quail habitat.
At the time, Fuselier had a hunting preserve that he was trying to keep in a natural state for his upland bird hunting operation for pheasant and quail.
Fuselier said he obtained seed from Vidrine and he planted it on a small patch of ground.
“The more I planted, the more interested I became in it.”
That was 15 years ago. Eventually, Fuselier closed his hunting operation. Because finding a dependable, close source for birds became more difficult. “I enjoyed it. I still get calls almost every day for hunts.”
But after he closed the hunting business, Fuselier maintained the 30 acres of wild vegetation. Vidrine is pleased with what his neighbor has done. “It’s really shaped up well. It’s beautiful.”
Fuselier said he enjoys having a small area with vintage growth. But he said he has benefitted from the project. “It’s led to a lot of different things on my farm. It really has been a blessing. The prairie led to reading about soil health and rotational grazing. It led to a lot of the changes we’ve done on the farm.”
For one thing, he allows his cattle herd to graze on the native plants for a few days. “We do rotational grazing.”
He said last year, his herd of commercial cattle grazed on the wild vegetation twice for no more than 3 days, and he’ll probably let them eat the grass up to 3 times this year. “We’ll block off area of an acre to an acre-and-a-half for a day. It depends on how much grass you have.”
He said it takes a while for the cattle to start eating some of the vegetation. “These cows have never seen these plants.”
The cattle won’t touch some plants. But even those plants have an indirect benefit by providing minerals to the soil. “They all serve a purpose. I think that diversity is important. You need that diversity. You need that mix. The more variety, the better off you are.”
He has used the Natural Resource Conservation Service pollinator and grazing programs to help maintain his prairie. And the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has recognized his efforts last year by placing his preserve on the Louisiana Natural Areas Registry.
Vidrine said the coastal prairie, dominated by tall grasses and 500-600 species of wildflowers, covered roughly 2.5 million acres of Louisiana. “It extended from Ville Platte to the freshwater marsh to the south, to the east to Breaux Bridge, then west to the Sabine River.”
Prairies help build topsoil, Vidrine said, and the black soil found in the northern states is an indicator of the prairie’s ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
Vidrine is the secretary for the Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society. Its website is http://www.cajunprairie.org.
Agriculture, urbanization, and the petroleum industry all played a role in decreasing the expanse of prairie, he said. Now, just a few fragments of the original natural grasslands can be found, mostly along railroads. “It’s probably less than 50 acres,” Vidrine estimated.
Some areas, like Fuselier’s preserve, have been reconstructed back to prairie. Vidrine said he helped reconstruct a 10-acre prairie in Eunice 31 years ago. Currently, the Duralde Prairie is being reconstructed north of Eunice. And Vidrine has a 1.5-acre reconstructed prairie at his home near Eunice.
Vidrine has a website that
The list of different native plants on Fuselier’s property is long. It includes, big bluestem, mountain mint, swamp flower, rattlesnake master, partridge pea, switchgrass, baptisia, blazing star, hibiscus, black-eyed Susan, beebalm and Eastern gamagrass. He also has a stand of Louisiana irises growing in a boggy area. He hasn’t replanted any of the plants since the first seeding 15 years ago.
“Most of these plants are perennials,” he said.
He tried wild seed of different plants grown in Oklahoma. “It did OK for 3 or 4 years, and then fizzled out.”
Fuselier harvests some of the seed by hand, and he also hires a seed harvester from Gonzales. The tedious process of cleaning the chaff and stems from the seeds is done by hand, and Fuselier has invented a cleaner from an old Stir-all auger.
Many of the seeds are as small as a pinhead, and he will sell them. But he can’t separate the seeds to sell just one species. All the seeds are mixed. He said people who call for seed usually want seed from just one plant.
He said the best planting is done by scratching the soil with a disc, then he broadcasts the seed in December or January. He has used a homemade packer made from a series of old tires to cover the seed.
Don’t expect the plants to flourish right away, he said. “The first year you don’t think it’s going to grow. It’s very slow to get established.”
He said Professor Vidrine told him, “The first year it sleeps. The second year, it creeps and the third year, it leaps.”
Fuselier burns the vegetation in late winter to encourage vigorous spring regrowth, and to control invasive species. “It may not kill it, but it sets it back."
Vidrine said fire was a natural occurrence on the prairie. “Everything east of the Rocky Mountains was a natural fire ecosystem.”
Vidrine said he burns his yard annually for the beneficial effects.
Fuselier also spot sprays to control the invasive Chinese tallow trees but he uses no fertilizer or pesticides. “It’s just like a native prairie.”
By September or October, he said, the plants reach 8-9 feet high.
Fuselier has 64 head of cattle. Most are South Poll cattle, developed from Angus, Hereford, Senepol, and Barzona breeds. He said the small-framed South Poll don’t need as much to eat. He also has a few head of a Corriente-Longhorn cross, but he hasn’t been pleased with the results. He also tried Piney woods cattle but he was disappointed.
“If you don’t want to make mistakes, don’t try anything new.”
Fuselier uses a low-input approach on his cattle to minimize costs.
“We feed little or no hay,” he said. “We use no antibiotics and we use selective deworming.”
He said he will give his cattle cottonseed to help them digest grass in the winter.
He said his cows had a low conception rate, and he had to rebreed them to his South Poll bull. Many of the births weren’t until February when the grass is at its thinnest, and his herd is looking a bit lean.
On the rest of his 140 acres of pastures, cattle graze on bahia and carpet grass.
He also leases land to a local farmer to grow rice.
Several groups have toured Fuselier’s farm. This year, his farm is on a statewide Louisiana Farms Bus Tour organized by the Louisiana Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative set for May 9-11. Others on the tour include the Cliff Vining ranch in Pioneer, the Delta Dairy in Baskin, Hunt Hill Cattle Co. in Woodville, Mississippi; Richland Hill Plantation in Norwood, Four Oak Farms in Morganza and Bunch’s Creek Longleaf Tract in Ragley.
Registration for the tour can be made on the LGLC website, www.Louisianaglci.org.
Story and photos by Bruce Shultz
ROANOKE - Two dozen Yankees invaded Jefferson Davis Parish recently to learn about crawfish and rice farming.
Most were retired farmers from the Madison, Wisconsin, area.
They were visiting the Tall Grass Farm owned by Burt Tietje (pronounced tee-jay) near Roanoke. He’s done tours of his farm numerous times, and he has several more booked this year.
“This is our biggest draw in Jefferson Davis Parish,” said Dion Sablehaus with the parish tourist commission. “It’s a very unique experience. Even people from our area don’t know what goes into farming crawfish.”
Already, she said, four bus tours and 15 school groups have booked the crawfish tour.
In his presentations, Burt tries to be as thorough as possible with the brief time he has with the group to explain the crawfish life cycle, biology, ecology and economics, and he also talks about growing rice.
He mixed that with some humor for the Wisconsin visitors.
“Around the first of October, LSU usually loses its first SEC game and I know it’s time to turn on the pumps,” Burt said, getting a hearty chuckle from the group.
He asked the group if any of them farmed, and several hold up their hands. “Then you know nobody can cry like a farmer.”
He explains how a crawfish swims in reverse. “I always say it kind of reminds me of a Louisiana politician.”
He stressed that crawfish are unpredictable, subject to numerous variables.
The farmers in the crowd asked several relevant questions about traps-per-acre, harvest frequency and details about the crawfish boat.
Dick Colby, wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt, asks a question that reveals his farming background with alfalfa, beans and corn. “Is this land normally this level or do you have to level it?”
John Link, a corn, wheat and soybean farmer, was intrigued with what is required to run a crawfish operation. “It looks like a lot of work to me.”
Burt admits to the crowd that he has someone do the harvesting for him now because of tendonitis from the repetitive motion of lifting, dumping, baiting and replacing the traps.
Another corn, wheat and soybean farmer, Jim Qualman, asked about the moisture level for harvesting rice, and whether the grain has to be stirred in the bins.
Later, Qualman said he was impressed by the amount of work involved before harvesting any crawfish. “People think you just do this overnight but it ain’t that way.”
Pauline Ballweg couldn’t get over the lack of topography. “It’s so different. Very flat.”
But she didn’t want anything to do with eating crawfish. “We don’t eat crawfish where I’m from.”
Ray Antoniewicz, a sheep farmer, said the variables in crawfish farming add to the risk factor in farming. “I can see where you’ve got a lot more things you can’t control.”
Antoniewicz said he was glad that Burt talked about where food comes from. He said he conducts tours of his sheep operation during lambing season.
Burt was at home with the farm crowd. “We all talk the same language.”
Pam Jahnke, who has a farm show on 26 radio stations and one TV station in Wisconsin, was pleased. “This is what we came for. We’re all connected with agriculture.”
(You can see and hear her presentations on her website, www.fabulousfarmbabe.net/, and eventually the segment on the Louisiana visit will be included. She’s also on Facebook.)
But Jahnke, who grew up on a dairy farm, admitted to Burt that she and her fellow Wisconsites were out of their element when it came to aquaculture. “You’re talking to people who have no foggy, flipping idea what you do.” She interviewed Burt for her show, and fired off several to-the-point questions, like, “There’s not a mechanical way to harvest these little rascals?”
Jahnke said farmers in Louisiana and Wisconsin have a stake in what happens with renegotiation with NAFTA, and the farm bill debate.
After the tour and Burt’s farm, the group traveled a couple miles to I-10 Crawfish where the day’s catch is processed and shipped out.
He tells them the crawfish trade is as unique as the farming practices. “It’s the last true supply and demand in the agricultural market that I know of. It’s a conversation between the buyers and sellers every day.”
The group was pleased that they had finally gotten to see agriculture between the stops in San Antonio to see the Alamo and New Orleans.
“This will be the top on our list,” Betty Buss told Burt on her way to the tour bus. “We don’t care about museums.”
Tietje started doing the crawfish tours in 2008 at the urging of his boss at the time, Marian Fox of the Jefferson Davis Tourism Commission and Economic Development Office.
He’s had a wide variety of groups, from Amish farmers from the Midwest to local school kids. “I change my lesson, my vocabulary, depending on the age group I’ve got.”
After the Wisconsin group, his next tour is a bunch of second-graders. “I just have to adjust. I had a whole busload of German tourists and everything I said had to be translated.”
He recalled giving a presentation for two Russians. “Evidently they grow some crawfish in southern Russia. One of the Russians told me, ‘In Russia we drink beer and eat crawfish.’ I said, “Here too!”
The Jefferson Davis Parish Tourism Office books his calendar as one of several activities a group does in one day.
Travel writers have figured out that Tietje is a good source for crawfish information so he can be found on TV and in newspapers and magazines, talking about crawfish and rice. “It’s not like I go out and seek this. It just comes out of the blue.“
A piece done by WBRZ-TV in Baton Rouge got sent up to network headquarters in New York and Tietje ended up in an interview with CBS anchor Scott Pelly. A group of travel writers, so stuff pops up in publications all over the place.
Tietje’s father and grandfather farmed the land where he farms.
“We’re a Century Farm. The state has a Century Farm program for farms in the same family for more than 100 years. My grandfather got here we think about 1895.”
Tietje said his grandfather, William F. Tietje Sr., was a German immigrant who came to the U.S. at age 14 and first went to Iowa, then moved to Louisiana at about age 20 about 1888.
“My dad said he homesteaded a piece of land in Allen Parish near Kinder. And he traded his 180-acre homestead for 80 acres where we’re standing here, and married the daughter of the farmer across the road and then bought that farm from her family.”
Tietje said his research has revealed that rice farmers in the time frame of 1910-19, with increased food demand from World War I, were profitable and many paid off their farm loans quickly.
But after WWI, the bottom fell out of the rice prices. “A lot of farms traded in the 1920 because of that precipitous fall of prices.”
The farm is located in a low area of the parish.
“This used to be a marsh, particularly the bottom of my farm. It was a great inland marsh that was about 4 miles wide and 20 miles north and south called the Grand Marais. You didn’t get to Jennings from this farm unless you went to Roanoke and got on the train or you went all around it, 10 miles north and 10 miles back by land.”
Burt had bins built on the home place after the Roanoke rice coop dryer closed.
“It’s twice what I need, so I paid for it by drying other farmers’ rice.”
He usually has 200 acres of rice and about 135 acres of crawfish. “You can’t make a living on those 2 things at that level, so I’ve always looked for other sources of income.”
Burt, an education graduate from Baylor University, is a former photographer who had a studio in Jennings, photographing babies, high school seniors and weddings. He got out of the business during the transition from film to digital.
When digital displaced film, he said, “I felt like a really good harness maker after the Model T came out. All the darkroom knowledge I had, throw it away. I didn’t want to spend that many hours in front of a computer.”
He accepted the change, but he had a plan to grow vegetables along with rice and crawfish. “I always knew I wanted to end up here on the farm.”
How did he come up with the farm’s name? “Rice is basically a tall grass. And as you look around you see I don’t mow much, so Tall Grass Farm.”
You can see his website at www.tallgrassfarm.net.
He started two high-tunnel greenhouses with help from the Natural Resources Conservation Service program to grow vegetables to sell.
High tunnels give him opportunity to plant in rainy weather. Sides are dropped when the weather turns chilly or windy, although the structures are not heated. “If it goes to 24 degrees like it did this winter it will get 25 or 26 degrees. You’re going to lose delicate stuff.”
He has a drip irrigation system in the greenhouses to give the plants water and liquid nutrients.
“There are a lot of things we can use that are approved for organic. Sometimes I get desperate and I have to use something to control pests. I try to stay as close as I possibly can to organic.”
He sends soil sample results to a consultant in South America for advice on soil amendments. “He takes my analysis and gives me a recipe.”
Burt admits if he had a larger operation, he would have to spray pesticides more often, but he prefers to stay small.
“Here’s one form of agriculture I can do. I don’t need a $200,000 tractor and equipment and maintenance.”
He uses composted cotton gin trash to add organic matter to the soil. “I get 18-wheeler loads. When it gets here, it’s smoking hot.”
He depends heavily on advice from Kiki Fontenot, horticulturist from the LSU AgCenter. “I can text her any time and she gets back to me.”
This year he watered heavily, and condensation built up on the greenhouse walls, providing a layer of insulation. “I walked into my greenhouse and it was 42 degrees. Of course the sun came out, the condensation melted and it went to 24 degrees.”
You name it, and he grows it. Cabbage, radishes, chard, kale, collard greens, arugula, French sorrel, Swiss chard, broccoli, and now he’s trying asparagus.
“Salad greens is really one of my signature crops.”
Midsummer gets too hot to grow anything but a few things like cucumber.
“And in the summer, everybody has got their home gardens, and so when somebody gives you tomatoes from their garden, the value of tomatoes is zero. But in the wintertime when they don’t have anything, and I’m the only game in town, I get a premium for my stuff.”
He also grows some plants outside in raised beds but the plants in the greenhouses grow better because they are protected from the wind and storms, he said.
He sells his produce at the farmer’s market in Lake Charles on Tuesday, Tuesdays, 4-6 p.m. at the intersection of Enterprise and Broad streets.
Tietje said at 63, running a commercial garden is becoming more of a physical challenge. “I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked, physically. That’s why I so desperately need an intern, because my back can only do so much. But I love it.
Story and Photos by Bruce Shultz
ST. MARTINVILLE – Now that the 2017-18 sugarcane harvest is over, mill operators are turning their focus on maintenance and upgrades in preparation for the next harvest.
The work is extensive. Grinders that crush the cane have to be reworked. Steam plants that run the machinery have to be refurbished.
“We have to essentially tear everything apart, disassemble the pumps and turbines and inspect the boilers and vessels,” said Mike Comb, general manager of the LASUCA mill situated about 3 miles north of St. Martinville on Bayou Teche.
“Later, we have to remove the solids from our holding ponds.”
The down time also gives the mill time to resume work on expansion projects.
“We want to increase the mill capacity by roughly 50 percent,” Comb said. “It will be incremental over the next 5 years.”
Currently, the LASUCA mill has a capacity of 12,500 tons of cane per day, he said, and the expansion should increase that to 18,000-19,000 tons.
Comb said it’s inevitable that plans will be changed mid-stream. “When you first start planning, you may not think of everything.”
One thing that has Comb concerned is labor. The plant hires as many local workers as possible, he said, but foreign workers are needed. “You can’t find a trained sugar boiler in the U.S.”
He said getting visas for those workers from Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico and Guatemala is an increasingly difficult challenge.
Comb said the expansion will require installation of a new boiler and 5 new mill mechanisms to run alongside the existing 6 mills currently in operation.
The LASUCA mill is limited for space, squeezed between by Bayou Teche and Louisiana Highway 347, so Comb said the footprint for expansion is small.
The plant has to have enough space to store bagasse, the fibrous byproduct remaining after the juice has been squeezed out of the cane. Bagasse is burned to run the boilers at the plant to generate steam, but making sugar produces more bagasse than the plant needs for fuel, and the leftover material occupies a lot of space.
Comb said a research project at a mill near White Castle is working on development of the waste product into briquette-shaped for fuel for widespread use.
Comb said this year’s crop and grinding season both went well. Some years are good for farmers and some are good for mills. “This year was a good year all around. For us it was the largest crop we’ve ever processed.”
John Hebert, LASUCA agriculture division manager, said the mill ground slightly more than 1.31 million tons of cane, compared to 1.03 million tons last year, producing 300 million pounds of sugar.
The grinding season began Sept. 20 and ended Jan. 9, for a total of 113 days.
The harvest was not without challenges. Freezing weather caused problems getting the crop out of the fields and to the mill, Hebert said. Combines froze in their tracks, he said. “There were farmers who couldn’t get
moving for 4 to 6 hours.”
On the second day of the freeze, trucks were left running overnight and drivers occasionally pumped brakes to keep brake fluid from freezing. Farmers started combines at 3 a.m. and tractors with engines running were huddled around the combines to provide warmth.
In parishes further north, ice on the roads caused more problems, Hebert said.
“We took our trucks off the roads until they thawed.”
The recent freezes were enough to damage the crop, he said, but cool weather afterwards prevented a disaster. If warm weather had followed the freeze, the standing cane would have been infected by bacteria to enter the plant and produce a chemical that interferes with the sugar-making process.
But Hebert said new varieties, especially 299, have improved cold tolerance.
“We’ve got a lot of good varieties. The public breeding program is the reason our yields are what they are today.”
Stuart Gauthier, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Martin Parish, said potential varieties are tested in Missouri and Arkansas for cold-tolerance.
Hebert said this year’s good crop was the result of several factors.
First, a mild winter in 2016-17 followed by a warm spring made provided an ideal start for the crop, he said.
Then adequate moisture was available all year. “The crop never got anywhere near a drought situation.”
Summer temperatures were moderate, and that’s ideal for cane because it grows best between 85 and 92 degrees. Above 95 degrees, and the growth slows, he explained.
Diseases were controllable and the West Indian cane fly was not the problem that growers experienced in 2016, he said.
Gauthier said the fly is a severe pest about every 17 years. “It’s a problem that comes and goes.”
Sugarcane borer insects were less of a problem this past year, Hebert said.
Chemical controls are species specific and they are not as harmful to beneficial insects to, he said.
Varieties have been developed with better insect resistance.
Hebert said growing cane is inherently less difficult than growing most other crops that are cultivated for the result of the reproductive stage. “Sugarcane is a simple plant. You’re not worried about anything but the vegetative stage.”
Part of Hebert’s job is to help the co-op’s farmers with their crop, advising them on issues such as fertility, pest control and harvest preparation. “Whatever is good for the farmer is good for the mill.”
“My advice to them is completely unbiased. I’m just trying to help them make better crops.”
Hebert comes to the job with a degree in plant science from LSU, and an agricultural pedigree. His father, Raymond, and brother Josh are cane farmers. His grandfather and an uncle have served as directors on the mill’s board.
Hebert also organizes a fleet of 62 trucks that haul cane from the field to the mill.
This year, he said, the trucks hauled 500,000 tons of cane. The area of farmers ranges from the northernmost fields near Cheneyville, Jeanerette to the south and Vermilion Parish to the west.
LASUCA followed the trend of several other mills by starting its own harvesting division, cutting 90,000 tons this year among eight new cane farmers who don’t plan to buy their own harvesting equipment, Hebert said.
LASUCA has roughly 45 growers who produced an average of 36.5 tons of cane per acre on 35,000 acres.
“We’re getting several farmers who have been grain farmers,” Hebert said. He said many of the new farmers are in St. Landry Parish.
He said the state cane industry will probably increase by 40,000 acres in the next 4 years where the crop has never been grown. This year, cane was grown in Concordia Parish and near Jonesville.
About two-thirds of LASUCA farmers also rotate some of their land into Group IV soybeans, Hebert said.
Maintaining fallow ground still costs farmers about $150 an acre, so making $150 an acre on soybeans can cover those costs.
The LASUCA mill still processes whole stalk cane along with the billets produced in the harvest with combines. “We probably had an increase in whole-stalk harvesting this year,” Gauthier said.
Some farmers consider whole-stalk harvesting cheaper because of reduced fuel costs for running the old-school harvesters if the fields are dry, Gauthier explained.
Another part of Hebert’s job is to set the dates to start and end harvest. That judgment comes from the experience of Hebert and his growers who are surveyed midseason for their perspective on what they are seeing in the fields.
Most farmers can make a good estimate of their crop, he said, with a field inspection to look at plant height, plant population and comparisons to previous years. “At the end of August, you try to peg the numbers on the crop.”
Growers apply ripeners in late summer, so the harvest has to be set to accommodate a window of 28-35 days after the application.
Another factor is planting which usually occurs in August, but wet weather in some years, such as 2016, can cause mills to delay grinding. “In 2017, like a miracle, we had 2 weeks of dry weather,” Hebert recalled.
It’s also up to Hebert to set the quota for farmers after assessing the amount of cane remaining from the previous day, and after consulting with the mill superintendent. “I try to bring in just enough cane for 24 hours.”
Hebert had originally set Dec. 28 as the last day of grinding. “Then I realized I had underestimated the crop, that it was better than I thought.” So the last day was revised to receive cane for Jan. 7.
“I misjudged the crop by 50,000 tons which is about 4 and a half days of grinding.”
If a freeze is threatening, the co-op’s board of directors will decide if a surge of northern cane should be made to protect those growers.
Hebert said without this year’s freezing weather, all of LASUCA’s growers would
have finished at the same time.
Hebert said the Breaux Bridge Chamber of Commerce is honoring the parish’s farmers and mill this year. “That’s a pretty big deal for us, to be recognized for our controls to the economy and the community.
Gauthier said the award is well-deserved. “The mill’s value to the local economy is more than $75 million, and they are one of the largest employers in the parish.”
The mill was built sometime in the 1800s by the DeClouet family. “It predates the Civil War,” Comb said.
It was acquired in 1895 by the Levert family, then in 1974 it was sold to growers and it became the St. Martin Sugar Cooperative. It became LASUCA in 1993 when it merged with the Breaux Bridge Sugar Cooperative, and the Louisiana Sugar Cane Cooperative which was made into the LASUCA acronym.
By Avery Davidson and Kristen Oaks-White
NASHVILLE, TN — Russell and Amelia Kent of East Feliciana Parish are the 2018 American Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers Achievement Award Winners. They are the winners of a new Ford truck, courtesy of Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance, and will also receive paid registration to the AFBF YF&R Leadership Conference in Reno, Nevada, Feb. 16-19.
“I’m still in shock,” Amelia Kent said shortly after winning the award, “It’s humbling and hasn’t completely sunk in yet.”
The Kents raise cattle and custom cut hay in East Feliciana and Tangipahoa Parishes. In those lush pastures and rolling hills, cows happily graze where the green grass grows. The Kents have grown more than cattle here, though. They've raised a business which has earned them the 2017 Young Farmer and Rancher Achievement Award during the 95th Annual Convention of the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation in summer of 2017 after several unsuccessful attempts.
"It feels great to be selected for this honor, amongst peers who are great farmers and great advocates across the state," said Amelia Kent. "It's a farm that we started on our own and built into a family operation."
Russell echoed that sentiment. "It's always a good feeling to be complimented and win an award. If anyone else had won, we would all be happy for each other because we're all friends," he said.
Part of the growth of the Kent's farm has been to expand their cow-calf operation from exclusively selling cattle to feedlots into one that includes custom, grass-fed beef.
"Even though the custom cutting is only five percent of our business, it is a lot more work than that. It's a growing part of our operation that has not only gotten us this award, but will help us grow in the future."
The Kents run nearly 400 head of commercial cattle and said whether it's for feedlots or for their custom operations, good beef starts with good grass.
“Without the grass they don’t grow, they are not healthy, they’re not marbling, they’re not gaining weight," Russell Kent said. "Our income is off of weight. So, instead of like a corn farmer, their income is off bushels per acre. We sell it by the pound, so we’re taking the grass and converting it into meat, which is how we get paid.“
“We frame our entire crop year around grass," Amelia added. "When we live in a setting with an 11.5-month growing season, we care about grass. We plant rye grass proactively in September and October, with hopes of grazing it as early as Thanksgiving. We also grow perennial peanut hay, which is the closest thing to alfalfa that we can grow. We’re able in the leanest part of the grass year to still keep high quality forage in front of these animals.”
In the last year, the Kents have shifted their focus to producing more retail cuts and custom grass-fed beef.
"We’ve pretty much doubled how much we’ve sold from last year to this year," Russell said. "It’s just word of mouth. We harvest a calf and sell it out of the freezer. People like it, come back and want a whole calf. Our volume really has tripled over the last few months.”
The Kents recognized the growing demand for grass-fed beef and as such, began adding that part of their operation to diversify.
“It’s always good to diversify even if it’s a different crop," he said. "Most farmers grow a combination of soybeans, corn, wheat, sugarcane and cotton. It’s not that much different from what we’re doing.”
Amelia said much like all of farming, it's taken a lot of time and a lot of patience.
“It’s a little bit more time involved in terms of selling calves at the yearling age, we’re keeping them a little bit longer," she said. "It’s fitting into our existent management scheme, so it’s not that much different.”
While they still sell most of their calves in contract loads to feed lots out West, Amelia says the grass-fed niche opened the gate to direct consumer sales.
“I always say if the cow-calf cycle is A through Z, with Z being the beef on the plate and the consumer, we rarely get to see that step," Amelia said. "With this method, we do, which has been very rewarding."
For the Kents, the real rewards remain in the relationships with their customers.
“We love what we do," Amelia said. "But to hear someone take our end product home and thank us not only in texts, but thank you cards for a product that they can have full faith in, it reiterates why we do what we do.”
In the field and in the office, the Kents have married their strengths to make their operation a success, crediting, of course, their marriage.
“She is very good at talking to people" Russell said. "I can produce it, and Amelia is better at selling it and marketing it. I can talk it, but I’m a terrible salesperson.”
“We rely on each other," Amelia said with a laugh. "We complement each other. I don’t think we would be able to have the farm that we have without the partnership that we have.”
The Kents qualified to compete on the national level after winning the Louisiana Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers Achievement Award in June 2017. For winning that competition, Russell and Amelia received $35,000 toward the purchase of a Ford truck, along with other prizes.
Story by Bruce Shultz
WELSH - The Watkins Cattle Co. is bullish on Brahman cattle. But there’s not a bull in sight at the WCC ranch.
“We don’t even have a bull on this place,” said Stuart Watkins. “The recipient cows will never see a bull, ever.”
The ranch specializes in high-quality replacement heifers, using a high-tech system of sexed semen with in-vitro fertilization and embryo transfers.
“Our largest market is the replacement heifer market,” Stuart said. “Our goal is 60to 100 Brahman females thru IVF and sexed semen.”
The WCC is a family-run operation started by Stuart’s parents, Carson and Marilyn Watkins.
“We bought our first Brahman female in the mid to late 90s. I was old enough to show cattle then.”
Stuart’s sisters, Caroline and Olivia, also showed cattle and they also have roles in the Watkins Cattle Co.
“Showing cattle was a big part of our lives growing up,” he said.
Allen Hogan, retired LSU AgCenter county agent in Jefferson Davis Parish, remembers the Watkins well. He worked with the Watkins when Stuart, Olivia and Caroline showed cattle in 4-H.
“I enjoyed all of my years working with all three of those kids,” Hogan said. They were a good 4-H Club family.”
The Watkins family benefited the 4-H program, he said, and they were willing to haul animals, loan equipment and give advice to newcomers to the show arena. “They would even provide animals to kids who couldn’t afford cattle.”
Hogan said Carson Watkins was innovative and willing to adopt new ideas, such as artificial insemination and embryo transfers.
After Stuart graduated from LSU, where he was class president 2009-10, the Watkins Cattle Co. shifted from a cow-calf operation to a purebred registered Brahman enterprise specializing in replacement heifers.
To start an embryo transfer, unfertilized eggs cells called oocytes, are first collected from the ovaries of donor cows. Flushing 10 oocytes in one session is good, Stuart said. “We’ve had cows give close to 30.”
Next, they are matured in a Petri dish and fertilized 20-24 hours later with sexed semen that ensures the process will result in females. To obtain sexed semen, sperm cells with the two X chromosomes that will produce females are segregated in the lab.
After fertilization, the embryos can be implanted in commercial cows.
“We do implants every 2 months,” Stuart said.
The WCC has up to 150 recipient cows that receive embryos from 20-30 Watkins donors.
Any surplus embryos left over from implanting are frozen to be used later. Stuart said the percentage of fresh embryos that result in pregnancy is higher than frozen ones, about 60 percent compared to 50 percent.
Stuart praised two reproductive technicians, Audy Spell and Joel Carter, for their expertise. “They lead the world in embryo implants. The success of our operation is because of those two guys. We’re so lucky to have that in Louisiana.”
And he said vet Chip Fontenot of Welsh plays an integral role in the process also.
“Having him within 2 miles of the ranch is such as asset.”
The Watkins ranch has red and grey Brahmas. At first, they had greys only, but they got into red Brahmas after 2011. Both colors have attracted an international market for the Watkins.
“At any given time, people from all over the world will be here,” Stuart said. He listed a number of foreign visitors from Colombia, Australia, Mexico and most Central American countries.
But most of the Watkins’ clients are from the Gulf Coast, primarily south Louisiana, Stuart said.
He also travels abroad to meet with customers, and to judge cattle shows.
“I enjoy every chance I get to go to those countries. I went to Australia in October, and I went to Vietnam last year.”
And he said the Brahman breed is the common denominator. “These cattle are made to go in the harshest terrain and environment. A Brahman cow in July or August will be out grazing, while British cows will be under the trees.”
While most buyers are looking for replacement heifers, some will use Watkins cows to produce F-1 outcrossings of Brangus or Braford.
Showing cattle is a good way to advertise, and Watkins cattle have a string of several grand championships. The ranch was well represented at the 2017 National Brahman Show in October in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where Miss WCC Donnatella 117/4 was named National Grand Champion. She is now being rebred at another ranch.
Donnatella follows a long line of Watkins’ cows that have been winners in the show ring.
In the pasture can be found a national champion, known as just 335, that has led the U.S. in recent years for producing the largest number of champions through her eggs, Stuart said. “She’s the matriarch of our operation.”
The Watkins have a bull, Maximus Rojo, at a ranch in Texas. He’s never been to
Louisiana but his semen has been used in more than 20 countries. “He breeds live cows, just not here.”
The ranch has two online sales a year. “We’ll probably do another online sale in
Stuart said videos of their cattle draw considerable interest, and buyers make bids online. “It’s kinda like eBay.”
Watkins Cattle Co. is on Facebook, and it has a website at watkinscattlecompany.com. Stuart also is on Instagram to show photos of
the cattle. “Social media has really changed the game, especially for purebred.”
Stuart said customer service is the key to the family business, even though it adds to the expense of producing an animal. “People come here to buy a superior product, so it’s worth it. We put the customer No. 1.”
That means providing a genetic verification of each calf to show that the mating matches the listed pedigree. Calves are weighed at birth. Cows that produce calves with low birth weights are a priority, he said, for easier birthing.
Stuart said an effort is made to frequently visit the calves to get them acclimated to humans. “Docility is a big factor for our customers.”
The current calf crop is small, but Stuart has picked out one calf that shows promise with good lines and musculature. “That one in the middle, I think she’s got a great future.”
He’s already considering what pairings he will use for the calf’s eggs. “I had her genetic makeup in mind since 2014, and I already know what bull I will mate that animal to. I do matings two generations out. It’s all about flushing the right cows for the right genetics.”
After Stuart graduated from LSU (all Watkins family members are LSU graduates)he went to work in Austin, Texas, doing public relations work for a real estate development company. Much of what he learned working there for 5 years has helped in the cattle business, he said.
But he said the family has been the key to the WCC. “We’re successful here because it’s me, Mom and Dad and my two sisters.”
He credits his parents for their willingness to try new approaches. For example, he said his father decided they should use sexed semen.
He said he handles much of the repro aspects and marketing while his dad runs the ranching functions. Stuart divides his time about evenly between Welsh and Austin where he is a real estate salesman for ranch properties.
“Mom is the backbone of the company with crunching numbers and forecasting where we’re going.”
His sister Caroline is married to a cattle rancher in south Texas, and his sister Olivia also lives in Texas and she has a small herd.
“All of us have such a passion for these cattle,” Stuart said. “We’re so lucky to have parents who raised us around a farming and ranching environment. I love working with my parents. Every day, we just enjoy working together.”
He said the work is hard, and sometimes the hours are long, but he loves raising cattle. “It makes it all worthwhile to drive out and see those baby calves.”