Story and photos by Bruce Shultz
Willis Provost has been farming sugarcane since he was 16. So for 58 years, he has made a crop.
He marvels at the high-tech world that agriculture has become with computers and lasers and the high costs of farming. “In my time, we had all those old tractors and mules.”
Provost, 74, recalls raking the cut sugarcane and cutting drainage channels all by mule, then using a shovel to finish ditches. “I don’t believe those kids could bear that now.”
He still wears his dark-blue farm outfit with his name and “Willis Provost Farms” monogrammed on his shirts, and he occasionally rides out to the fields to check on the workers’ progress. “They know they’ve got to work if they see my truck driving around.”
Willis is pleased with this year’s crop. “That rain helped us out. That’s the first year I’ve seen it that tall.”
And he’s pleased with the tonnage and sucrose recovery. “Things are in our favor this year.”
Provost now leaves most of the work to his son, Paul Provost; sons-in-law Gerald Sonnier and Troy Boutte; and godchild Chad Zenon. His daughter, Crystal, and his wife, Linda, also help with the farm operation.
The group has a division of labor. Chad does field preparation work and laser leveling, in addition to maintenance. Paul supervises harvest at loading sites and coordinates what fields will be cut.
Troy maintains the equipment and tends to the paperwork for the Farm Services Administration for the farm that has cane from New Iberia, Coteau, Delcambre, Erath, Youngsville and Kaplan.
Chad said the group pulls together with an esprit des corps. “It’s all family, and that’s why we do good. It takes a cooperative effort. Just keep things flowing, that’s the name of the game.”
Willis is a third-generation farmer, and he recalls his father, Frank Provost, farmed back in the day when cane was cut by hand. “My poor momma was out in the field too with my father. Whatever he would do, she would do too.”
Willis recalled that Sunday was a big day because after math, the family would trade eggs that they collected from their chickens to trade for the upcoming week’s groceries.
He said his father died at a young age, leaving the 21-year-old Willis and his older brother, the late Wenceslaus Provost, to farm more than 400 acres near the Port of Iberia.
Gradually, he and his brother picked up more land in Coteau. Then more around Erath, Delcambre, Abbeville and eventually Kaplan. “Land was hard to find around here.”
He admitted other farmers thought he was crazy to farm land an hour’s drive away, but he figured he had no choice if he wanted to expand his acreage.
Willis figures the farm’s acreage will be close to 4,000 next year, and he figures he can retire from farming soon.
“We’ve been hearing that story for 10 years,” said daughter Crystal.
Troy said Willis’ influence is ever-present, even when he’s not in the field.
“My father-in-law is a one-of-a-kind,” said Troy. “He’s just trying to keep the legacy going.”
But whether anyone will carry on that legacy is uncertain. Gerald, Troy and Paul said they doubt their children will want to become farmers.
Chad’s son, Kyle, is a possibility. He’s majoring in agribusiness at McNeese State University, and Chad is certain Kyle will have an agricultural career.
Kyle plays tackle at McNeese State University. He’s easy to find on the field. Look for No. 77, standing 6 feet 5 inches tall and 300 pounds. He also is on the McNeese track team. While at Vermilion Catholic High, he was 2013 state champion in the shot put and discus and runner up in the javelin.
He said Kyle works on the farm when he’s not at school or on the athletic field. “He gets on a tractor every chance he gets.”
Willis is amazed at the price of everything these days. Starting out, he said, a harvester cost $30,000, and he was able to make all the repairs himself. Now, a new harvester costs more than $350,000, and it requires a computer technician to make repairs. :”You can change a bolt on it and that’s about it.”
He doesn’t envy young farmers just starting out. The high cost of farming, and the need to get bigger, have complicated making a living from the land, he said. “It wasn’t stressful in my time, and right now it is stressful.”
But on weekends, that stress melts away when Willis and Linda get on the dance floor. They are avid fans of Zydeco musician Geno Delafosse.
Willis said he noticed that Delafosse will be playing at Pat’s in Henderson the next weekend. But Linda reminded him that he has an upcoming doctor’s appointment and a check-up after a health upset. “If it turns out all right, that’s where we’ll be,” Willis said. “Got to get that exercise.”
Sure enough, things turned out all right, and Willis and Linda were on the floor dancing to Zydeco.
Willis said they probably know everyone on the dance floor when they venture to Pat’s in Henderson or Vermilionville.
Linda grew up on a farm, so she knew what she was getting into when she married Willis. “I guess that’s why she married me.”
Linda said she met Willis at her grandmother’s house. “He stole me from my boyfriend.”
Willis revealed his automobile might also have had something to do with the budding romance. “At the time, I had a 1963 Chevy Sport with 4-on-the-floor.”
Willis’ son-in-law, Gerald, made his way into agriculture when he married Crystal.
Gerald has been a farmer for 22 years. He grew up in New Iberia and had no farming background. “I didn’t grow up doing this. I had to learn everything.”
He had worked at the Musson-Patout car dealership as a body repairman, and he attended Southern University with plans of becoming an insurance adjuster.
Gerald said Willis Provost wasn’t content to farm just a few acres to get by. “He had vision. He realized for a minority farmer to get land, he had to hustle.”
Gerald said the decision by his father-in-law to expand into Vermilion Parish. “A lot of farmers told him you’ll never make it farming that far away.”
Gerald said he especially appreciates Linda Provost, and not just for her cooking. “I have the best mother-in-law in the world.”
Gerald said he learned farming from Chad, Willis’ godchild. He said Chad is dedicated to farming. “He loves farming. He lives and breathes farming.”
Chad said he went to work on the farm full-time as soon as he graduated from Vermilion Catholic in 1992.
He credits his parrain, Willis Provost, and his grandfather, the late Eldridge Zenon, for teaching him about farming.
Paul Provost, Willis’ son, said he was 8-9 years old when he started working on the farm and driving a tractor.
Chad readily admits farming is his passion. “That’s my thing. I told my grandfather years ago, I’d like to learn every aspect of the farm.”
He said he tries to learn as much as he can, and he explores different techniques and methods used by fellow farmers. “Better production brings in better money.”
Like Gerald, Troy had no farming experience, and he married another Provost daughter, Mary Candy.
Before his life in sugarcane, Troy was a salesman for the Coca-Cola distributor in New Iberia and he studied to be a travel agent.
But Chad said his wife, Penny, and the other partners’ wives keep things on course. He said his wife is quick to provide encouraging words when things look bleak. “When the going gets tough, she can see it in my face.”
To work the Provost land requires a crew of foreign labor from Guatemala and Mexico, along with a few locals. Gerald said the work crew has overcome the English-Spanish language barrier with just a few hand signals and experience. “I can read their mind. We communicate just by looking at each other.”
Chad said they were able to get their workers about a week before the harvest started. “I’m worried about the season to come. Without them, we’d be in trouble. It would be hard to do without them.”
The Provost group is pleased with this year’s cane crop. “Tonnage is great. Sugar recovery is great. We’re loving it right now,” Chad said.
Paul said the relatively dry weather has resulted in fewer breakdowns and maintenance problems. And he said good weather also means cleaner roads, which cuts down on complaints from the public about mud and debris on the highways.
The West Indian cane fly was not as much of a problem as it was last year, Chad said. “We suspect that affected our tonnage last year.”
Rain in late summer interfered with planting, and some cane lodged from stormy weather. Paul said the 226 variety seemed to lodge more, while 540 and 299 has been stronger.
All of their crop is hauled to the Cajun Cooperative in New Iberia. The cooperative’s custom harvesting group also cuts about half of the Provost crop.
Chad said Blair Hebert, LSU AgCenter county agent based in Iberia Parish, is a valuable asset. “He’s never hard to reach. We trust him and he’s out to help the farmer and that’s what makes him a good county agent.”
Hebert said the Provost operation is tight-knit, with a good work ethic, a love for farming and teamwork. “It’s in their blood. They have a good system.”