Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
DURALDE -- Jeremy Craton didn’t grow up on a farm. He got a taste of agriculture one summer working for Acadia Parish farmer Bubba Leonards.
“That was my introduction to farming.”
Jeremy said he wasn’t even able to drive. “I was just 13 or 14 years old.”
He said he learned a lot from Bubba and his father, Dennis Leonards, and much of the work was done with a shovel. “I didn’t know there was a top cut or a bottom cut in a field. I’m glad they had patience because I sure needed it.”
After graduating from Notre Dame High School, he attended college at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and LSU-Eunice for a few semesters, but he figured out college wasn’t for him.
Jeremy started working for a construction company, and he found out he liked playing in the dirt with heavy equipment and driving 18 wheelers. “You couldn’t get me away from it.”
He said his first year of farming 10 years ago at age 30, he had 40 acres of rice, and he was hooked. Jeremy said his father, Crowley attorney John Craton, helped him on the business end by teaching him money management.
He said he enjoys farming because of, “Being in the dirt. Being my own boss.”
But he quickly learned that if he wanted to be a rice farmer, he had to go into the crawfish business.
“It was actually crawfish that helped me where I am now, and I’m not nearly out of the woods.”
He relied heavily on his father-in-law, Paul Lejeune and Paul’s brother, Neal Lejeune, for farming advice. They all help each other at harvest time.
His son, Gage, age 14, helps on the farm during summers. He’ll be in the 9th grade at Basile High School this year. With schools closed because of the pandemic, he has been a regular fixture on the farm.
Besides Gage, Jeremy and his wife, Tiffany, have two other children, daughter Riley, who will be a senior this year, and their youngest, 8-year-old Wyatt.
Jeremy thinks Gage and Wyatt might become farmers. “Both boys have a pretty good interest in it. Every chance they have, they’re with me.”
He is working this year with Keith Fontenot, retired county agent in Evangeline Parish who is the research associate working with the LSU AgCenter Rice Verification Program. A handful of fields are chosen throughout the state’s rice-growing areas for the Verification Program, and Fontenot helps farmers with technical advice on planting, pest control, fertilization and water management.
On Jeremy’s 46-acre field for the Verification Program, he had the rice variety Cheniere flown on at 80 pounds an acre on March 22.
Fontenot said he is recommending that Jeremy apply a third of the field’s nitrogen, followed by another third after 2 weeks, and the last third at green ring. He also recommended spraying propanil to control sedges.
Jeremy said he benefits from the Verification Program by having another viewpoint from Fontenot and Evangeline Parish County Agent Todd Fontenot. “I like meeting with them and walking the fields and listening to what they have to say. They walk a lot of fields with a lot of problems.”
Keith Fontenot said he is impressed with Jeremy’s attitude. “No matter how bad the situation is, he can deal with it. He doesn’t get rattled and he takes things as they come. He keeps a level head.”
He recalled that one morning, Jeremy had a series of problems that came up at the last minute. A crawfish boat and a spray rig had problems at the same time a home improvement project was about to start, but Jeremy showed up for a meeting anyway. “Anybody else would have said, “I’ll see you later. I got problems I have to deal with.”
Todd Fontenot said Jeremy was in the Verification Program several years ago when it was run by Dr. Johnny Saichuk. Jeremy allows some of his land to be used for the Asian Soybean Rust sentinel plot to monitor possible outbreaks of the disease, and he sits on the Evangeline Parish Rice and Soybean Advisory Committee. “He’s been easy to work with and eager to work with us.”
Jeremy said much of the rice he grows has been sold to Bunge and shipped to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, so he is concerned whether the ports along the Gulf Coast will remain operational. (The Zen-Noh Grain Corp. of Japan announced in April that it is buying Bunge’s 35 grain elevators along the Mississippi.)
He also grows medium-grain rice that he sells to the Kennedy Rice Mill in north Louisiana at Mer Rouge.
This year, the Craton farm has about 275 acres of medium-grain and about the same acreage in long-grain. He won’t grow a second rice crop because he wants to concentrate on crawfish. He has about 600 acres in crawfish this year.
Although he has grown soybeans before, he quit growing poverty peas several years ago.
Last year’s rice crop was mixed for Jeremy and most farmers because of disease problems. His long-grain yield averaged only 32 barrels, but he got 50 barrels an acre from his medium-grain crop planted in Jupiter.
He said kernel and false smuts were widespread, and huge clouds of yellow and black dust filled the air at harvest. “Late afternoon we’d have to stop to wipe the windows down on the combines. If we had to work on a combine, you’d have to blow off the dust first.”
He expects the smut will return this year, but he has a plan to fight the problem. “I’m considering an earlier fungicide treatment and a second treatment.”
He’s more optimistic about his rice this year than last year when prices were low, and the crop was one of the worst in many years. “There’s more potential right now than last year.”
“The cost of inputs is just as much as last year,” he said, but added that fuel is much cheaper.
He started selling some of his crawfish to a new buyer recently, and that absorbed much of his harvest. For a while, his original buyer limited how much could sell. “Even during Holy Week, we were limited.”
But with a new additional buyer, he has been able to resume harvesting at full capacity. “Last week I was able to start fishing everything.”
But he said the limits placed on his catch apparently resulted in an overpopulation which has led to a smaller size overall. “The quality has gone way down. I fished 240 acres yesterday, and I caught 25 sacks of peelers.”
He figures the overall economic loss for his crawfish this year has probably cost him about $500 an acre. “It’s not good. Crawfish usually has to make up the difference for the rice. It’s going to be tough.”
Jeremy started running his boat with cage wheels, made by Hughes Manufacturing of Jennings, instead of paddle wheels, on four of his five crawfish boats this year. He said the cages don’t rut fields as badly as the conventional paddle wheels.
Jeremy is pleased with the progress of his rice crop so far this year.
Keith Fontenot travels through the rice growing area weekly to check on Verification Program fields, and he said the young rice crop looks good. Some of the early dry-planted rice had uneven stands at first, he said, but they have evened out gradually. He said a Verification Program field in Acadia Parish is approaching green ring.
Dr. Dustin Harrell, LSU AgCenter extension rice specialist, said “This year’s rice crop has had a tremendous start. It’s one of the best starts I’ve seen in a long time.”
He said the overall temperature in March was 10 degrees warmer than the average. “Our crop really jumped up to a good start.”
A few days of cold weather in April probably slowed growth but the crop has bounced back, he said.
Harrell said some fields have had a problem with chinch bugs, and some rain events have interfered with fertilizer applications, but south Louisiana rice is doing well.
He said north Louisiana and Arkansas growers have had problems with wet weather at planting.
Todd Fontenot said the Evangeline Parish rice crop looks ahead of schedule, maturing quicker than usual. He said the crop was beaten up by a heavy storm in late April.
“It’s coming out of it now. This weather has been pretty good for growing rice.”