Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
LAKE ARTHUR – It’s the first day of March and it’s obvious that Joel Trahan is eager to help a neighbor start planting this year’s rice crop.
Trahan no longer farms rice, but the opportunity to get on a tractor and plant a crop takes him back to what he knows best, and he doesn’t hesitate to tell you why he likes farming.
“You’re out here in nature. It’s just something about the smell of the soil, watching the crop grow and then there’s the harvest. And then the second crop in the fall, and the specks fly over and you’re part of it.”
Trahan, the youngest of 7 children, said it was a given that he would be a farmer. As a boy, he didn’t play sports because he was needed to help on the farm. “It was a fact that when we got off school, we had something to do on the farm.”
Trahan said his crawfish operation just isn’t the same as growing a rice crop, even though there’s more of a likelihood of a profit, without crop insurance.
Trahan planted 20 crops of rice in his farming career. He said if rice prices had reached a profitable level, he would still be growing rice. “I would have never stopped, no doubt. I just thought it was selfish to keep doing what I love at the expense of my family.”
Two of his brothers, Neal and Jess, also tried rice farming, all following in the footsteps of their father, Louis Trahan.
Trahan and his wife, Dharma, have four boys. Tyler, the oldest is a recruiter for Our Lady of the Lake Medical College in Baton Rouge. Dylan is in graduate school at McNeese, studying wildlife management. Isaac is a high school sophomore. Spencer tried farming rice last year, but realized it’s an iffy proposition with low prices. Dharma works at Lake Arthur Elementary in the computer lab.
Trahan said his father, Louis Trahan Jr., started cutting back rice acreage in the late 1980s. “As he dropped land, I picked it up.”
In 2005, Hurricane Rita dumped saltwater on rice fields in the coastal parishes, and Trahan lost his second crop. That made his decision to get out of farming easier. “I was making ends meet, but not gaining anything.
Through it all, he was able to stay afloat financially because of crawfish. “The crawfish was what was paying for my rice habit.”
After Trahan quit farming, he took a job in the oilfield, but in 2008, good rice prices lured him back into farming. But the high costs of expenses put him back in the same scenario. “I came to the realization that I was playing the same game, but with higher stakes.”
Fuel costs were the main problem. Most of his fields were on pump-off land. That meant draining a field require using diesel-burning pumps at $3 a gallon.
So Trahan exited farming again, taking another job in the oil business then another for a John Deere dealership. But he continued his crawfish business, and in 2014 he bought a crawfish catering business and turned it into Trahan Farms Catering.
He has boiled crawfish, and barbecued, for events from Charleston, South Carolina, to Denver, Colorado, and several times in Houston. He said business is off this year because oilfield businesses have cut back on expenses, so he has worked to diversify his clientele. “I haven’t done a boil yet that I haven’t been invited back to.”
Trahan revealed that even though his catering business could use crawfish from his fields, he prefers to buy graded, purged and iced crawfish from Demand Quality in Morse owned by Don Alleman.
Trahan depends on Mexican labor to harvest crawfish on 340 acres. “I can’t imagine doing it any other way because I have so much to do.”
Having hired labor allows him to do catering jobs without interrupting the crawfish harvest.
One of his employees has been working for him for 14 years. Trahan uses an agent to deal with the red tape of immigration, but he said this year was one of the smoothest.
The rice crop on Trahan’s crawfish fields is grown by farmer Shannon Daboval of Thornwell.
Three wells are available for flooding but surface water in the canals is usually adequate for irrigation. A pump at one well near the lake has been converted to electricity.
The 2017 crawfish crop has been a challenge, Trahan said. “This has been one of the slowest years I can remember for catch and income.”
He said last year’s flooding in August had a negative effect on his ponds. “I had 3 weeks of backwater flooding with no levees showing.”
After the flood, he saw females carrying young crawfish, and he doubted the young would survive. Predator fish that had found their way into his ponds took their toll, he said. “I’m pretty confident my earlier generations were wiped out.”
He said his catch has been about a month behind his usual totals, but improvement has been obvious. In two weeks, he said, the catch went from one sack for every 20 acres, to 1 sack per 10 acres.
But Trahan said the price for crawfish has dropped considerably, to $1.25 a pound. “I don’t ever remember $1.25 this early.”
He said part of the reason for the price decrease is simple supply and demand with more farmers turning to crawfish to make extra income because of low rice prices around $15 a barrel. “There’s a lot more people getting into it that haven’t been in it before.”
Mark Shirley, LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant aquaculture agent agreed.
“The number of acres affected by the flood in August is more than offset by additional acres of production in rice fields,” he said.
More rice farmers started harvesting crawfish because of the low rice prices, Shirley said.
Shirley said some processing plants have not been able to start peeling because they had trouble getting foreign workers into the U.S., and that probably has also resulted in lower crawfish prices.
Warm weather has helped the crawfish crop, he said. Usually the peak of production is in March and April, he said. “This year, we are approaching the peak 2-3 weeks earlier.”
But he said fields that were flooded in August for more than a few days have taken longer to produce a respectable crop because of bad water quality and predator fish. “Those are the exceptions I’m hearing.”
He said more and more crawfish is being shipped out-of-state. “But we still have a lot of crawfish available locally.”
Ray McClain, LSU AgCenter crawfish researcher, said the abundance of crawfish has led buyers to stop buying earlier in the year than usual. “It was unheard of for buyers to shut their fishermen off in February but it’s happened this year.”
McClain said there are encouraging signs for the market. He said more small towns in surrounding states even have crawfish stands. And the big shipments from China are no longer being made that was being sold in groceries at low prices, McClain said. In addition, Scandinavian buyers are sourcing crawfish and they have returned to the U.S. to find big crawfish.
McClain said a good rule of thumb is that a pond should be producing crawfish by the time oak trees, but not live oaks, begin to bud. “If you’re not, you definitely have an off crop.”
He said the warm winter has resulted in more small crawfish. But he said it’s not a good practice to throw small crawfish back with the expectation that they will grow to a more profitable size.
He said it’s not surprising to hear that ponds subject to backwater flooding in August have been slow to produce.
He agreed that more crawfish ponds are being fished. “I think a lot more people are fishing,” he said. “Either more people, or people are fishing more.”