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.”