Story by Sam Irwin, January 2017
Rodney Simoneaux of Assumption Parish is surveying a wet field on the north side of Highway 38. Even though it’s late November, he’s hoping it will dry up enough to plant sugarcane.
The tract was filled with spoil from a summer Bayou Lafourche dredging project. It’s part of the plan to send more water down the bayou for coastal restoration, Rodney said.
It was too wet for Rodney to plant in the summer and he was holding out hope that he might get a chance to plant it in December. He’s not sure.
Back in 1982 Rodney wasn’t quite sure if he was going to be a sugarcane farmer. His father and uncle were sugarcane farmers. His maternal and paternal grandparents were dairymen with a bit of sugarcane on the side. It seemed like the farming life was pre-ordained for him.
Young Rodney, however, was having fun. He was living the carefree college life and studying agronomy at Louisiana State University where he was an associate to Dr. Laren Golden and Dr. Ray Ricou and working alongside Dr. Kenneth Gravois, who was Dr. Golden’s assistant.
"I got my degree and interviewed for a job with Halliburton,” Rodney said. "My professor said to take the job if they offered me a good salary.”
Halliburton did offer him a good job, but Rodney had other things on his mind. He took a job maintaining the LSU golf course.
Was Rodney too caught up in ivory tower life? It was touch and go, he admits, but ultimately there was a method to his madness.
"I had taken a turf management class and was cutting grass at the golf course,” Rodney said. "I was kind of aimless. I didn’t want to give up that college life.”
Rodney has a certain twinkle in his eye. On the surface he seems to be a bit mischievous and folks down Bayou Lafourche would not have been surprised if Rodney managed to live out his life cultivating turf and driving golf carts at English Turn.
Then Rodney got a phone call from back home.
"Daddy called and said, ‘Are you interested in coming back to the farm?’” Rodney said. "I said yes.”
Rodney worked in the laboratory at Glenwood Co-Op Sugar Mill and for his father, U.B. Simoneaux, for three years until the severe freeze of 1989. Even though the freeze was devastating, he never looked back.
Rodney’s son, Stephen, 30, is now farming alongside his father. He’s a lot like his dad – cheerful and always smiling.
"Stephen, like me, never indicated he was interested in farming,” Rodney said.
Rodney manages 1,000 acres while Stephen runs another 500. Rodney is very active with the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation and works with LSU AgCenter to host an annual sugarcane field day in Napoleonville. But he and his wife, Michele, are probably best known at the present as the parents of three daughters, two who have been selected as Louisiana Farm Bureau queens and Sugarcane Festival queens.
"My oldest daughter, Sarah Elizabeth was a Washington D.C. Mardi Gras princess,” Rodney said. "Mary Claire was Assumption Parish’s first state Farm Bureau queen. She also won the Sugarcane Festival queen’s crown. And then Rebecca followed in her footsteps. She also won Farm Bureau and the Sugarcane Festival queen contest.”
How did that happen?
"We go to the Farm Bureau convention in New Orleans every year,” Rodney explained. "All the kids would take over the hotel every year. It was better than Disneyworld for them.
"On the pageant night, my girls would go and sit right in front of stage and took it all in. When they were young girls we never once thought they’d have an aspiration to participate in the contest. Then they were in four pageants and they won four times. They sat there and watched and aspired. They wanted to be Farm Bureau queens. They worked out here on the farm and did what they had to do to win and they never lost.”
There’s always a certain amount of adversity in anyone’s life and Rodney has experienced a share. He lost part of a finger to a sugarcane harvester.
"You can always tell the cutters from the loaders,” he joked. "The cutters all have an appendage missing.”
A more serious calamity came in 2000 when he was struck by Guillain-Barrésyndrome, a disease similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
"I was aching all over and thought I had the flu,” Rodney said. "I kept on working but it got to where I was just in pain.
He ended up in the hospital for 69 days and then several more months in rehab re-training his body to do the basics like sitting and walking. Fortunately, his body responded. He overcame the disease and he happy to be alive and lucky to be a farmer.
"With 10 weeks in the hospital and eight months of rehab, I was not able to work,” Rodney said. "My father had to come out of retirement to run the farm. He and my three brothers, along with
Just about every farmer in the parish got the crop planted and harvested.
"It was extremely humbling to experience so much selflessness from my fellow farmers. If the cliché that a man’s wealth is measured by the friends he has is true, then I am the gold standard.”
Rodney feels lucky to be a farmer.
"When people ask me why I chose farming as my occupation, I tell them there are easier ways to make a living, but there is none that are better,” Rodney said."Every morning I wake up, get dressed, and walk across the street to my parent’s house for breakfast. After visiting with mom and pop and reading the newspaper, I walk to the tractor shed with a smile on my face.
"I had three older brothers and I wanted to be like them. One of my favorite memories was being out in the field with my big brothers. We’d get called in for dinner and they’d always give me a head start. I would take off running for the door but they’d chase me and somehow I would end up always being the last one in.”
Family and farming. It’s the gold standard.