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.”