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.’ “