Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
MOWATA - This is what it all comes down to for rice farmers. After all the long days of applying chemicals and fertilizer, enduring bad weather, worry, paperwork, mechanical breakdowns and other frustrations, it’s time for harvest.
And unlike last year’s dismal harvest, reports are good from most farmers.
That’s the case for R&Z Farms in northern Acadia Parish.
The ‘R’ in R&Z Farms is for Keith Rockett and the ‘Z’ is for Doug and Dwayne Zaunbrecher. Also working on the farm are Keith’s son, Jonathan, and Dwayne’s sons, Nicholas and Michael.
Their first field cut an impressive 57 barrels an acre on July 31. The 42-acre field was one of five in the LSU AgCenter’s Verification Program. It was water-planted on March 13 with RiceTec hybrid FullPage 7321 at a seeding rate of 25 pounds per acre.
“It’s amazing how that rice tillers,” Jonathan said. “Of the 1,400 acres we have in rice, about 800 acres was planted with hybrids. We especially like it for our weaker ground.”
Doug said they have been buying chicken litter from the DeRidder area, and it seems to have boosted rice yields. He said some crawfish producers are convinced it increases their catch too.
They don’t second-crop any of their rice, preferring to go from first-crop harvest to crawfish production.
Most of the fields in R&Z Farms are within a 5-mile radius of the original farm where Keith and Jonathan live, although they have one farm north of U.S. Highway 190.
Their biggest weed problem is nutsedge, and it’s controlled with Permit or Permit Plus.
Jonathan said the all their seed was treated with Dermacor, so they didn’t have much of an insect problem. Disease pressure was light also this year.
It’s a totally different year disease-wise compared to 2019, Jonathan said. Last year, smut disease permeated the fields throughout the southern part of the state, but strangely it hasn’t been much of a problem this year.
Dwayne said just in case, all their rice is sprayed with fungicides. “Ten years ago, we didn’t think that had to be done but one year we learned differently.”
The LSU AgCenter has had test plots at the R&Z Farms since the year 2000.
Dr. Steve Linscombe, retired LSU AgCenter rice breeder, remembers when he first started his off-station research with the Rocketts and Zaunbrechers.
“The Rice Breeding Project planted the first off-station research location on R&Z Farms in 2001 so this year makes the 20th consecutive year that research has been conducted there.”
Since Linscombe’s retirement, Dr. Adam Famoso, LSU AgCenter rice breeder, has continued using the R&Z Farms.
Linscombe said the research location has been extremely beneficial to variety development efforts.
“Even though this location is only a few miles from the Rice Research Station, it provides a very different environment for evaluating experimental lines as potential new varieties. The soil type and disease spectrum are different. This makes this location an excellent source of data on yield potential, yield stability, grain quality and disease resistance which is precisely what is needed in making variety release decisions.”
Keith said he likes having the plots on the farm. “We think it’s good, and I don’t feel guilty calling the LSU AgCenter for advice.”
Jonathan said he values the LSU AgCenter’s expertise with County Agent Jeremy Hebert and Keith Fontenot with the LSU AgCenter Rice Verification Program because he knows the recommendations are not based on selling a product.
As it turns out, Jonathan and Jeremy attended McNeese at the same time, although they didn’t know each other then.
Jonathan said he looks forward to Jeremy’s consultations. “Half the time we talk about the rice, and half the time we talk about the garden.”
Jonathan and his wife, Candace, have a vegetable garden and they get help with sons Jaxson and Jude, ages 10 and 6, and daughter Juliana, age 4. They grow tomatoes, eggplant, squash, bell peppers and cucumbers to make 100 quarts of dill pickles every year.
Jonathan’s sister, Hannah, teaches at a small college in Washington near Seattle and a brother, Damian, is an engineer in Houston.
Jonathan’s father, Keith, grew up in Rayville on a cotton and soybean farm. He graduated from Louisiana Tech with a degree in animal husbandry, then went to work in the oilpatch with a well testing company. In the late 1970s, he married Gloria Casselmann from Acadia Parish whose father, Ludwig Casselmann, was a rice and cattle farmer.
Keith eventually decided to make a career change and start farming. He relied on his father-in-law to teach him how to grow a rice crop. “I knew nothing about rice, but I couldn’t have had a better teacher.”
Ludwig, who died in 1990 when Jonathan was 10, made a lasting impression on his grandsons and Keith.
As a boy, Jonathan learned to speak German from his mother. Doug said their grandfather insisted they learn German as soon as they could talk. “He would speak to us in German, and you had to learn it.”
And he said his mother, Hannah, also spoke to them in German.
Doug said Ludwig also taught himself to speak French so he could talk with his Cajun neighbors, many of whom could not speak English. “He knew enough to carry on a little conversation.”
Dwayne said he went with the family to Germany in the 1990s, and they met some of Ludwig’s relatives from the Kassel, Germany, area. “We actually stayed with his cousins. They told me ‘I can still hear the Kassel dialect in your German.’ ”
Dwayne said as a boy, he wasn’t sure what he would do for a living. He went to LSU-E for a couple years, but he started working with his grandfather in 1984. In addition to raising rice and cattle, they baled wheat straw to sell for use at racehorse tracks and on highway construction.
Dwayne’s sons work the grain bins and help with whatever comes up on the farm. He said he encouraged his oldest son, Michael, to go into engineering but he insisted on becoming a farmer. Michael did earn a master’s degree in business administration. Nicholas is nearing graduation from McNeese in ag business.
Dwayne and his wife, June, also have a daughter, Kathryn, who’s getting her master’s degree in business administration at Louisiana Tech.
Doug started with the farm in 1990. He and his wife, Marla, have a son, Hans, who’s a sophomore at Louisiana Tech majoring in construction management, and a daughter, Anya, a high school junior. Doug’s wife is a teacher in Iota.
Doug attended trade school for diesel mechanics, so his abilities are a good fit on the farm. He’s in charge of the operation’s trucking divison.
“Things have really changed a lot,” Doug said.
He recalls learning to drive a tractor without a cab, and he distinctly remembers being put to work by their grandfather in a field with Dwayne. “I think it took us all day to plow that 20-acre field with a 10-foot plow and a 12-foot plow.”
Doug said Ludwig would save chores for the weekend for him and Dwayne, and that included mixing feed, grown on the farm, for the milk cow. “We always had little projects. We definitely give him all the credit for being taught how to work at a young age.”
“I remember pulling red rice when I couldn’t see over the tops of the rice,” Dwayne said, recalling a memory as a 5-year-old boy. “He would get mad at me because I’d step on his heels because I didn’t want to get lost.”
He said his grandfather’s experience of dealing with the Depression had a lasting influence. “He taught me if I wanted something, I had to go out and get it.”
Dwayne said after Ludwig died, numerous cans of old nails were thrown away.
“When we tore down a barn, we pulled every nail and straightened it because we might need it if we built another barn.”
Doug remembers that too. “He’s 100% right on that. There might still be some old nails in the warehouse if you dig deep enough.”
Dwayne also remembers when someone would bring up the possibility of growing a different crop, his grandfather would tell him, “This is rice and cattle country.”
In those days, it was common to rotate cattle and rice on a field but now, he said, crawfish has replaced cattle.
The pandemic resulted in many crawfish producers losing customers this year when restaurants closed, but Dwayne said R&Z Farms maintained most of their business. They have a buyer who sells to customers on the East and West coasts, he said, and they supply restaurants, including many in north Louisiana from Shreveport to Rayville.
Dwayne said their catch was good, but prices fell early and didn’t rebound.
He said after a month, he realized it was necessary to catch crawfish early in the weekend to be able to meet a heavy weekend demand. ““It was crazy this year. We sold more crawfish the week after Easter than the week of Easter.”
This year, their crawfish boats were switched from cleated wheels to cage wheels. A neighbor, Patrick Bellard, fabricated the wheels that resemble squirrel cages, and don’t have the lugged cleats that dig into the soil. Instead of the deep ruts, the wheels leave shallower cuts in the field that can be repaired easily.
“You still get tracks, but they’re not busting through the clay pan,” Dwayne explained. “It’s much better than it was in previous years.”
He said the new wheels lose some traction, but there are ways to compensate for
that problem. Dwayne said a neighbor has been using the new wheel design for a couple years, and he notices a big improvement in the field conditions.
County Agent Jeremy Harper said the R&Z Farms’ is constantly working to improve. “They’re always interested in the latest and greatest, and they’re very progressive farmers.”
He said he’s worked with them on several projects. “They are a great, great family, and great farmers.”