Story and photos by Derek Albert
THIBODAUX – In October 2021, Jason Richard was doing exactly what he is doing this October. He was waking up at the same time before 5 a.m., climbing in the same John Deere, harvesting sugarcane in the same fields and hauling his crop to same place –the nearby Raceland Raw Sugar Corporation. But things looked a little different in Lafourche Parish 12 months ago.
On August 29, 2021, Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc with her Category 4 winds and near foot of rainfall when it made landfall near Port Fourchon in southern Lafourche Parish, about 60 miles from where the Richards farm lies near St. Charles. Richard recalled evacuating with his wife, Lori, and their two children Jase and Blair.
“I didn’t know what we were going to come back to…whether we were going to have a crop or not,” Richard said.
“The entire southeast Louisiana sugarcane industry felt the blows dealt by the hurricane,” said Renee Naquin Castro. She serves as the LSU AgCenter agronomy agent for Lafourche, Assumption, Ascension, Terrebonne, St. Charles and St. James Parishes. Those parishes contain approximately 25 percent of the state's sugarcane production. Castro said this year’s harvest is shaping up to be one that is vastly different from what Richard and other farmers were seeing last year.
“The sugar industry is really resilient,” Castro said. “This year could possibly be a record year. The crop is beautiful.”
While a lot of the maturing 2021 crop was twisted, and in places, flattened, the Richards fared well, considering the magnitude of the storm. The warm, sunny September following Hurricane Ida’s barreling through Southeast Louisiana offered plenty of sunlight to help dry the soggy soil and slowly erect the crop that was bent and tangled from Ida’s 150 mph plus winds.
“We didn’t have too much damage, just a few pieces of equipment,” Richard recalled. “The recovery was fairly quick.”
As the harvest progressed, Mother Nature shined her literal light upon Louisiana sugarcane farmers with dry weather and sunny days that Richard said helped to create this year’s crop that, so far, is looking to provide for a bountiful sugar harvest.
“It’s a totally different crop from last year,” Richard said enthusiastically. “Last year, at the beginning, we had rain after rain after rain. Then, we had the hurricane. But we had a dry grinding, and we had a dry spring I think that is what helped it out.”
LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Ken Gravois corroborated Richard’s sentiments about the dry 2021 harvest aiding this year’s crop.
“This crop started last year,” Gravois said. “We had a dry November and December, and that's some of the biggest weather influencers for the next year’s crop. It’s very encouraging start to the crop,” Gravois said. “Just about everybody that I have talked to is encouraged by the tonnage and the sugar recovery. You don’t often get the best of both worlds, but this year most farmers are.”
Gravois explained that to begin each year’s harvest, farmers usually start with fields that have heavy clay soils, usually with less vigorous stands of sugar cane. This year that is no different, but even with harvesting the less productive fields, the metrics used to measure yields—tons of cane per acre and pounds of sugar per ton of sugar cane-- are promisingly higher than usual.
“When you get along the Bayou Lafourche and Mississippi River areas, those are some of the youngest alluvial soils in the U.S. They are some of the most fertile. It’s been of the main parts of the heart of the industry for more than 200 years,” Gravois added.
Richard farms approximately 800 acres of sugarcane along Bayou Lafourche just south of Thibodaux, in the tiny St. Charles community. He said sugarcane has been a part of his family’s livelihood for generations. He started farming full-time alongside his father, Philip, in 2004 after graduating from Nicholls State University with a degree in agribusiness. As an up-and-coming farmer, he was a member of the Lafourche Parish Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee. He continues his service to the community, and the industry, as a member of the Lafourche-Terrebonne Soil and Water Conservation Board.
Despite challenges of rising input costs and the threat of Mother Nature taking her toll on the annual crop, Richard said sugarcane is a big part of the community and he hopes to continue the tradition as long as the operation can sustain his family—and beyond.
“I have a little boy who’s eight years old,” Richard said speaking of his son Jase, who would represent a ninth generation of sugarcane farmers in the family. “The other day he just told me, ‘I guess I’m going to be a farmer too, Daddy.’”
Castro said Jason Richard, and other farmers his age represent the future viability of the industry.
“We’ve lost a lot of growers over the years,” Castro said. “Years ago in Lafourche, we used to have a lot more farmers than we do now. It’s nice to see the younger generations taking up farming and moving forward.”
Helping the industry move forward is a main goal of the American Sugar Cane League, located about 6 miles away from the Richards’ farm, on the opposite bank of Bayou Lafourche. General Manager Jim Simon said he shares in the farmers’ enthusiasm over the positive start to this year’s harvest.
“You almost couldn’t ask for a better start,” Simon said. “We have a pretty decent crop in the field, and it has been dry. But a lot has to happen between now and when the last stalk passes through the mills in January, but things are starting off good for us.”
Simon said during harvest season, the public will undoubtedly notice more trucks hauling cane on the state’s thoroughfares, along with harvesting equipment that is essential in getting the crop from the field to the mills. He urges motorist to use caution and follow the laws when approaching harvesting sites, sugar mills and slow-moving equipment.
“Be aware that farmers from all over the state—whether it’s sugarcane, rice, cotton or soybeans—we’re all bring our crops out of the fields into market. We’re asking folks to be extra cautious at this really active time of the year.”
This year, the American Sugar Cane League is teaming up with the Sugar Association, a Washington-based organization that touts itself as the scientific voice of the U.S. sugar industry, to celebrate real sugar. The groups have established “National Real Sugar Day” that will be celebrated on Oct. 14. Simon said Real Sugar Day is intended to make more consumers aware that real sugar is grown on sugar cane and sugar beet fields throughout the U.S. He said there are many ways the industry, its farmers and the general public can participate.
“Folks can prepare a real sugar recipe and post it on social media,” Simon said. “Our growers can be active on social media with posting pictures of themselves in the fields bringing sugarcane from their fields to the consumers’ tables.”
Story by Derek Albert
Crowley – Louisiana rice farmers are certainly having a sense of déjà vu as this year’s harvest comes to a close. What they’ve seen before is consistent, near-daily rainfall that hampered their operations. In the spring of 2021, steady rains caused farmers to have to delay planting rice, fertilizing fields and applying other chemicals. Mid-to-late August 2022 brought a similar weather pattern that dampened the harvest, rutted the fields and has, thus far, hampered second-crop cultivation.
The challenges farmers already faced with record-high input costs this year were compounded by soggy yields and rutted fields as the 2022 rice harvest ended on a soggy note. LSU AgCenter Rice Specialist Ronnie Levy said the harvest started off with optimism. Particularly in South Louisiana, a warm, sun-drenched growing season with adequate—not copious—rainfall provided the optimal conditions for grain production.
Fast forward to the harvest. Levy said when the combines first started rolling, yield data were producing strong numbers.
“Most of the yields were extremely good in the early part of the harvest,” Levy recalled.
Then, as the calendar progressed through mid-August, the skies opened up. The heavy winds and constant rains contributed to lodging which was aided by the substantial crop that the growing season produced. “With that lodging it makes it a lot harder, and slower, to harvest the crop,” Levy said.
A lot slower indeed. Acadia Parish producer Donald Leonards said while it usually takes about two weeks to harvest his 700-acre crop, this year, that duration stretched out to 33 days.
“The wet weather slowed the harvest to a crawl,” said Leonards. “We couldn’t get the amount of rice out that we needed in a timely fashion. The logistics of getting equipment in and out became a severe problem. It was a fight from the beginning to the end.”
Leonards said the less than desirable harvest conditions only compounded to the strife that he and other rice farmers were already feeling from producing a crop with record-breaking input costs.
“In the 27 years I’ve been farming, this has been the most expensive crop,” Leonards said reflectively. “Then, we have a hampered harvest. All that weighs on your mind. It takes a toll on you. You want to provide a good, quality product, but it’s hard when Mother Nature fights against you.”
Further west near the Calcasieu-Cameron Parish line, producer Brandon Vail recalls the muddy conditions causing logistics problems for his operation, as well. He said getting trucks to the fields, and to the dryer bins, became a headache with no cure.
“Normally, where we would be running a quarter mile with a cart, we were running three-quarters of a mile in a lot of places,” Vail said. “And that’s not to mention, that instead of cutting four or five loads, you’re cutting three.”
Despite the challenges the rainfall caused--or compounded--Vail offered a rather optimistic way of looking at all of the August precipitation
“At least it’s not a hurricane. That’s all you can tell yourself,” he said with a restrained chuckle. “It’s just rainfall. It is stressful, but its not as stressful as trying to cut ahead of a tropical storm or hurricane where you know you are going to lose the crop entirely.”
The next step for many farmers is to prepare their fields for a ratoon crop harvest or for the early fall crawfish season. Regardless of which process comes next, there are bound to be some detrimental residual effects from the rains.
“The rutting affects the ratoon crop that might come back for that harvest,” Levy said.
“It may even impact the amount of forage for crawfish production.”
Farmers who planned on producing a ratoon crop in many fields were not able to manipulate the straw left behind the combines. Levy said this causes further challenges to harvesting a strong ratoon crop.
“They like to roll those fields after harvest, and because it was wet, it doesn’t break that apical dominance. It just pushes it over. So, you don’t get the same effect from that type of manipulation.”
Rice disease pressures were unusually absent from most fields during the growing season this year said AgCenter Plant Pathologist Felipe Dalla Lana. He credits the warm, relatively dry growing season with helping to keep diseases at bay. But when the summer rain pattern settled in, the disease scenario drastically changed.
“With more free water in the leaves, and the warmer temperatures, it was more favorable for sheath blight,” Dalla Lana said.
He said farmers also saw some fields with cercospora and kernel smut, but these ailments were more isolated to the fields that were planted later and avoided the combine heads later in the harvest. He cautions farmers who are planning on harvesting a second crop that if a certain field showed signs of disease pressure prior to harvesting, chances are there will be those same diseases developing in the maturing ratoon crop. Likewise, for farmers who will plant rice in those affected fields next spring, disease pressures will likely return to fields where they were previously present.
“For farmers preparing for next season, keep in mind that in fields that had sheath blight, and are in a soybean rotation, or rice-after-rice rotation, are at a higher risk to have sheath blight problems next year,” Dalla Lana said.
Even with all the rain clouds rolling overhead in August, there may just still be a silver lining peeking through when this year’s harvest is in the books. Though the late harvest was dampened with the persistent precipitation, Levy said the state’s overall harvest yields may still be better that expected.
“Even with some of those low yields, we still were higher than expected,” Levy said with cautious optimism. “At this point, we could have a record yield this year because of the newer, high-yielding varieties and the good growing conditions.”
Farmers in northeast Louisiana are still harvesting as they typically get a little later start with planting each year due to lingering colder spring temperatures. Tensas Parish AgCenter Extension Agent Dennis Burns said Northeast Louisiana rice acreage was down for a consecutive year because of the elevated price of soybeans. Those farmers who did plant rice in the shadows of the Mississippi River bluffs are seeing similar conditions to what their southernmost counterparts were seeing.
“We were just getting started when the rains came,” Burns said. “It’s been a mess trying to get the rice out. It rains somewhere in the parish almost every day.”
Once the North Louisiana crop is harvested, and the South Louisiana ratoon rice yields are added, Levy said there will be a more complete picture just how much rice was produced this year.
Story and photos by Derek Albert
EUNICE – From rural northern St. Landry Parish, there is something growing. Yes, there are soybean and rice fields ready to be harvested. But there’s something else. if you listen closely, you may be able to hear the growing interest into a new more healthful rice. The man behind it, Mike Fruge, wants you—and everyone else--to hear about it too.
Fruge farms about 1,400 acres of rice, crawfish and soybeans in St. Landry and Evangeline Parishes. In 2019, he planted a new emerging rice variety developed by the LSU AgCenter, Frontière. This variety—the creation of the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station’s molecular geneticist Herry Utomo and biotechnologist Ida Wenefrida--has become the trademark product of Parish Rice. Though Fruge said his impetus to package and sell Parish Rice was a way to get his own brand of rice onto grocers’ shelves, he knew there was something special with Frontière. In its development, Frontière was formulated to have a higher protein content than typical rice varieties. This, in turn, offers its consumers a 53 percent protein increase and a lower glycemic index rating.
“I felt we had something unique with high-protein,” Fruge said. “I didn’t know how different, at the time, because we didn’t know about the glycemic value. When we found that out, we really realized we had something unique.”
The health benefits are why Utomo says Frontière is a game changer for the rice industry.
“In order to serve more diverse market needs, we are now expanding our breeding efforts to include other rice types aimed to increase yield potential while keeping the GI score low,” Utomo said. “This is a game changer…not only for people with diabetes, but also for people with pre-diabetes who need to prevent the condition from progressing into a full stage of diabetes.”
Fruge said he saw the health benefits as a strong selling point when pondering how he would market his own brand of rice.
“I felt like it would give people the opportunity to eat rice again,” he said. “That is something that really excites me. That’s the most joyful, prideful part of all of this—the fact that I’m getting more people to eat rice.”
Fruge is juggling the responsibilities of farming and overseeing the retail side of the operation. In fact, what is arguably the busiest, most time-sensitive time of year for a rice farmer—harvesting--was interrupted during the first weekend in August with a food distributor trade show in New Orleans where Fruge featured Parish Rice for potential buyers such as restaurant owners and food service professionals. It is with efforts like these Fruge hopes he can get the word out about the low-GI, high-protein benefits of consuming Parish Rice.
“We are steadily growing,” he said. “We have a long way to go. We have more people that we need to reach.”
While Fruge said his operation does deliver directly to some local stores in and around Acadiana, his primary way of getting Parish Rice onto grocery store shelves is through distributors. Increasing consumer demand for Parish Rice has helped to expand availability to grocery stores throughout the Gulf Coast. According to the Parish Rice Web site, the Louisiana-grown product can be found on store shelves from Houston to the Florida panhandle. But he admits, marketing, promoting and selling his unique brand has offered a new set of challenges that farming rice could not have prepared him for.
“The retail part of this business is very challenging,” Fruge said while standing next to pallets of packaged Parish Rice. “It’s still new to me. I’m still learning a lot.”
The process of milling Parish Rice is not different from any other variety on the market, but it does require a facility that can make sure there is no other variety that makes it into each bag of Parish Rice. Fruge said he has built a great relationship with Falcon Rice Mill in Crowley.
“Falcon does all my milling and packaging,” Fruge said. “They are really great people. They are easy to work with. With them being a smaller volume, domestic mill, it’s easier for them to keep it separate, because they are set up for that.”
Before entering into the new endeavor of growing and selling Parish Rice, Fruge was learning the ropes of the rice industry from his father. The younger Fruge earned a degree in agronomy from LSU and after graduating in 2004, began a 1-year career with Horizon Ag—a company whose footprint in agriculture relies heavily on rice seed sales. Fruge says he could not find the balance of farming rice and promoting his product without the help of family. He farms 1,400 acres of rice in rotation with crawfish—and some soybeans—alongside his father, Raymond.
“My dad really helps out a lot,” said the younger Fruge. “I am really able to get away from the farm because of him. He can take care of things and keep things going.”
Fruge says this year’s crop that is ready for harvesting looks good, but constant late summer rains have made getting this year’s crop out of the fields and into trucks an arduous task.
“We went 11 straight days of getting rain. We had a pretty good run on Friday and Saturday, and got a really big rain yesterday,” Fruge said on Monday, August 8.
Daily operations at the Fruge homestead are carefully orchestrated by Fruge’s wife, Sarah, who works as an optometrist. Mike and Sarah are parents to three children with another Fruge on the way. Fruge borrows a sentiment from a fellow farmer when describing how Sarah does her part to make the Fruge family farm flourish.
“He said something that really stuck with me,” Fruge said. “He said his wife is growing the most important crop—and that is his children. That is 100 percent true. I can’t help out a lot because of the hours we put in--especially in times like this. Sarah does a lot for our kids.”
It’s obvious that Fruge proudly stands behind Parish Rice, but he is not only raising the alarm to his brand, but he is also a strong advocate for the Louisiana rice industry, as a whole. He related part of his sales tactic that he often uses at food trade shows.
“Obviously, I want them to buy Parish Rice, but if it’s not for them, that’s fine. I tell them, ‘Just make sure you know where it is coming from—particularly if it’s from Louisiana.’ We pride ourselves in having a better-quality rice in the Mid-South. I really push for people to buy Louisiana rice.”
Though rice may be the driving force behind the Fruges’ operation, crawfish has grown into a sustaining secondary part of the farm, as well. The father-son duo added crawfish to their agricultural arsenal two years ago. The spring 2022 crawfish season proved to be disappointing for crawfishermen as catches were lower than usual. This was no different for the Fruges.
“It was not a really great year,” Fruge said reflectively. “We caught crawfish, but our costs were up exponentially…labor, gas, bait, everything. We did not catch the volume we really needed to cover all that. It wasn’t a banner year by any means.”
If you have not already tried Parish Rice and would like to get your hands on some, the Parish Rice Web site offers a locator map with more than 100 store locations where you can stop in and grab some on your next grocery run. Two of the more notable retailers selling Parish Rice are Rouse’s Markets, whose management has built their 65-store grocery empire on Louisiana-sourced products, and H.E.B. of Texas. For those who do not live in Louisiana or near the Gulf Coast region, the Web site also offers online purchasing opportunities.
“I’ve always known that we had much higher rice consumption on the Gulf Coast, particularly in South Louisiana,” he said. “What surprised me the most was the interest (in rice) around the country. We have shipped rice, via our Web site sales, to all 50 states.”
What’s in store for the future of Parish Rice? The answer to that question harkens back to the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station where Utomo and Wenefida are working to develop a successor to Frontière that boasts an even higher protein content. While Utomo and Wenefrida spent seven years developing the Frontière variety, Utomo said there are recently identified shortcuts that can be integrated into breeding techniques to speed the breeding process.
“A specific selection index with three key determinants is being used in low-GI selection schemes in parallel to high-protein screening,” Utomo said.
Fruge said some of Frontière’s characteristics will have to be maintained in the yet-to-be-released rice variety.
“We do not want to jeopardize the quality—the grain quality and the cooking quality,” Fruge said.” This variety, Frontière, is derived from Cypress which set the gold standard for rice quality in the United States. This variety (Frontière) does have very good milling, cooking quality, appearance, texture and we want to make sure we sustain that quality.”
Vermilion Parish Sugarcane Farmers Juggle Crop Production with Leadership to Earn 2022 Farm Bureau Accolades
Story and photos by Derek Albert
ERATH – The winners of the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation’s 2022 Young Farmers & Ranchers Achievement Award shared one emotion when accepting their honors at the agricultural advocacy organizations centennial celebration—surprise.
Despite their years of hard work operating a portion of their family’s 2,100-acre sugarcane and cattle farm, despite more than tripling the membership of the Vermilion Parish Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee that they chair together and even despite helping to elevate the Vermilion Parish Farm Bureau Committee to earn the its third consecutive President’s Award, Philip and Chelsie Domingues still said they were surprised--and honored--to be named this year’s top young farming couple in Louisiana.
“We won the award, but I felt like our parish won it too,” Chelsie said humbly. “So much of the application was based on leadership and so much of that came from the involvement that we have with our parish.”
But if Chelsie said it felt like Vermilion Parish came out on top at this year’s LFBF Convention, that’s probably because Vermilion Parish left New Orleans with several of its members hoisting plaques on stage. In addition to the Domingues’ Young Farmers and Ranchers Achievement Award, Vermilion Parish took home the LFBF President’s Award, accepted by Vermilion Parish Farm Bureau President Bryan Simon, for the third consecutive year. Rice and crawfish farmer Laura Hebert, of Maurice, was awarded the Outstanding Young Farm Woman Award. Winner of this year’s Discussion Meet, Amanda Duhon, also hails from Maurice. This year’s top Ag in the Classroom Teacher of the Year Award was presented to Haley Broussard, who teaches second grade at Dozier Elementary in Erath. Vermilion Parish’s Abbeville Meridional newspaper was recognized as this year’s top local media partner.
Though it seems the honor of winning was enough to satisfy the Domingues, they also received $35,000 from the Southern Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company; an all-expense paid trip to the American Farm Bureau Federation Convention to be held in San Juan, Puerto Rico in January 2023, as well as other cash prizes.
The Domingues have always had family ties to the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation. Philip’s late maternal grandparents Wayne and Linda Zaunbrecher were lifelong residents of Vermilion Parish where they worked as rice, crawfish and cattle farmers. Both were active Farm Bureau Federation members who held several leadership roles with the organization. The couple is now remembered with an annual Louisiana Farm Bureau Foundation scholarship bearing their names. The leadership experiences garnered from their roles with the Vermilion Parish Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee has translated to learning experiences for the couple, Philip Domingues said.
While chairing the Vermilion Parish YF&R Committee, Philip and Chelsie were able to drum up interest in the group among their counterparts by publicizing the committee’s events via the internet and social media. They even instituted an annual sushi night to bring the group together in a laid-back social setting to much fanfare. With their efforts, the Domingues swelled to committee’s membership from about one dozen to now more than 50 within a couple of years.
“The crop’s looking decent right now,” Domingues said optimistically of the sugar cane growing on his farm. “We just need some timely rains to finish it out.”
The changing of the guard on the Domingues’ operation brings with it some new practices that seem io be catching on among south Louisiana sugarcane growers.
Domingues said he and his brother, Tyler have incorporated the process of no-till fertilizing for their young crop each spring. Domingues said the practice has gained traction on their farm because it translates to decreased labor and fuel costs by having to make fewer passes in the rows. But, he said, the practice has its environmental benefits, too.
“I just think it’s better for the soil. Not turning the soil is better to let the microbes work the way they need to. About half of everything we fertilize is no-till,” Domingues said.
Sugar cane thrives in the hot, humid weather that Vermilion Parish has had thus far this summer. The constant daytime sunshine punctuated with intermittent showers coming off the Gulf of Mexico (only about seven-to-eight miles from the Domingues’ farm) usually marks exceptional growth for the stalks. With the hottest part of South Louisiana’s summer approaching, the Domingues are preparing for the sugarcane planting season to begin. This year, the Domingues are looking to plant about 475 acres of cane in their crop rotation cycle. The recurring “Catch-22” this time of year for sugarcane farmers is timely rains. While Domingues, and other sugar producers, plant their seed cane in late-July through August, they hope for timely rains to help their fledgling crop grow. But, if those rains become too substantial, the planting process is halted until the soil is dry and loose enough to open up the rows again.
“When we have trouble planting, that’s usually when our crop is the best,” Domingues quipped.
A delay in planting causes headaches because quickly following the planting season, in late-September, the harvesting season begins. Wet weather patterns, like what Southeast Louisiana saw following Hurricane Ida last year, forces farmers to have to arduously juggle the labor-intensive tasks of planting and harvesting simultaneously until the fallow ground can all be planted.
All the Domingues’ sugarcane crop is harvested and trucked along LA Highway 14 to U.S. Highway 90 to Franklin’s Sterling Sugars. The mill, operated under the umbrella of M.A. Patout & Sons, is tucked along the north bank of the sinewy Bayou Teche, 42 miles away from the Domingues’ farm. Philip said rising input costs, like that of diesel fuel, will affect the farmers’ bottom lines come harvest time. Though the Domingues are in a harvest group with Sterling Sugars, transporting this year’s harvest is a looming source of concern, Domingues said.
“This year, that’s going to take a toll on everything,” Domingues said. “If the price of diesel doesn’t change, I guess they are going to have to charge more to haul it…which takes out of our bottom line.”
Despite sky-rocketing input costs, Domingues said the current sugar markets are helping keep their heads above water.
“The price of sugar has helped us out tremendously,” Domingues said. “We just have to keep making good crops. That’s the main thing. If we don’t, we lose the input costs that we’ve already put into it.”
And, how do the Domingues manage to produce “a good crop?” They do that with the guidance of researchers with organizations such as the LSU AgCenter, the American Sugar Cane League and the USDA-Agricultural Research Station in Houma. These institutions each provide research-based data translated into new sugarcane varieties, best management practices and representation on the global sugar market.
“It sets a bar for us,” Domingues said. “When it comes to best management practices, herbicide rates…what’s better for this, what’s better for that… without the AgCenter things wouldn’t be as good as they are today. The AgCenter and the [American Sugar Cane] League have done a very good job of getting us good varieties over the years. You know, something that is going to last, hopefully, a long time.”
Domingues said L 01-299 is a stout variety whose 2009 commercial release by the aforementioned organizations has helped to keep the Louisiana sugar industry alive and well. He looks ahead to other varieties like HoCP 14-885 that are currently showing promise in south Louisiana fields.
“They say the [HoCP 14-] 885 shades really well,” he said. “They are saying that it’s ‘the unicorn’ of varieties.”
In 2012, Philip’s father, Dewey Domingues first incorporated Southern Sugar in 2012 with just under 1,000 acres of farmland. Now, Philip, his brother, Tyler, and Chelsie manage the operation that has more than doubled its acreage. When it comes to future aspirations for Southern Sugar, Domingue said he would like to branch out into planting soybeans on fallow cane fields. He said he would like to plant the legume crop to replenish nutrients into the soil where future cane crops will be propagated.
“I see a big benefit to planting soybeans,” Domingue said. “We’re not making any more soil. I’d rather build on it than bleed it.”
Together Philip and Chelsie are raising the next generation of Domingues. Chelsie said they are raising sons Grady, 5, and John Reista, 20 months, and daughter, Azelie, 4, to appreciate the hard work that the agrarian life brings. It was evident that at least one of the Domingues’ youths has already been well acclimated to the farming life.
Five-year-old Grady patiently awaited as a nosy reporter delayed an obviously pre-planned trip through the fields on one of his father’s tractors.
“He wants to go on a R-I-D-E,” Chelsie Domingues cautiously told husband, Philip.
After cooperating for a few photos to accompany this story, the aspiring young farmer was treated to his r-i-d-e.
Story and photos by Derek Albert
COLFAX – If you find yourself driving through Central Louisiana’s Grant Parish, you will not find any fast-food restaurants, big box stores or even any traffic lights. What you will find along its bucolic winding highways are fields of corn, soybeans and milo.
Of the remaining commercial farmers in Grant Parish, Ryan and Danielle Yerby, proprietors of Tareau Farms, will be the first to tell you that farming in their region has not been easy. Tucked away among oxbows on the eastern bank of the Red River, the area is dominated by a diverse array of agricultural commodities. But according to the Yerbys, Mother Nature has not been extremely cooperative, in recent years, to a profitable agrarian lifestyle.
“We flooded in ’15 and ‘16. We froze in ’17. And froze again in ’20,” Ryan Yerby said about his previous attempts at growing winter wheat.”
This growing season, there may be no wheat on Tareau Farms, but there are about 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans and now, milo. Yerby said he has added milo, also known as grain sorghum, to his crop rotation. He gave a number of reasons as to why he planted a crop that Grant Parish had not seen much of in a few years.
“You can actually get something for it, now. The market just opened up,” he quipped about the forage crop. “It’s drought tolerant. It’s a great rotational crop and it’s not a difficult crop to grow.”
It seems, this year, the drought-tolerant characteristic of milo is at the forefront. Rainfall has been scarce so far, this growing season. Yerby said the 600 acres of corn he planted this year have severely stunted by the area’s drought. And his soybeans are thirsty, too.
Yerby said Grant Parish elders speculate that the vicinity to the Red River triggers a meteorological anomaly that causes the coveted precipitation-carrying low-pressure systems to skirt around the fields where the Yerbys farm. It could be that…or just coincidence…that occasionally leaves the area arid during the summer months. But the Yerbys have faced the opposite, too—floods.
“Once your crop goes under, especially in those flood conditions, that part of the crop is wiped out,” he said. “So, you’ve got to start looking at maximizing yields. You’ve got to increase your margins without increasing inputs.”
Though it is either ‘feast or famine’ when it comes to precipitation, water below ground is just as spotty. In what Mother Nature has doled out as pure irony, “The closer you are to the river, the less water there is,” Yerby explained. He said he has begun exploring more irrigation options with property owners in recent months.
“Irrigation is a joint effort. Not only is it a landlord investment, but it is as tenant investment, too,” Yerby said. “Both landlord and tenant have to be on the same page and have to realize ’hey, we are going to have to be in a long-term relationship to pursue this.’”
In efforts to get a better grasp of shrinking margins, the Yerbys are focusing on precision agriculture technologies on their operation. Starting this year with Bayer’s Climate Fieldview technology, Ryan, along with Crop Production Services crop consultant, neighbor and friend, Tommy Crooks, can start collecting data on every acre of farmland during every step of the farming process.
“It helps us mange inputs with a fine-tooth comb,” Yerby said.
“We are in the infant stages of it, but I’m focused on making sure the planters are calibrated right so that we are putting out the right amount of seed and the right amount of fertilizer at planting.”
Danielle Yerby said both she and her husband have resorted to supplementing their family income stream with subsidiary businesses related to their farming operation. She described these side jobs as “parts of the business that have become the bottom line.” Ryan, who uses a sizeable amount of polypipe to irrigate fields--where the water table allows it--has begun to sell the vital irrigation material to neighboring farmers. And between his and his father’s farms, Yerby also tends a herd of 175 beef cattle. In addition, Danielle said rather than let the farm’s expensive earth-moving equipment sit idle while the crops are in the ground, they have started accepting jobs for land leveling and other dirt work.
“We have this equipment that we bought for ourselves. Why not make it pay for itself for the rest of the year?” Danielle explained.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Danielle, who dabbled in home gardening, also earned a nursery license from the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry to raise and sell bedding plants.
“Those couple of things, over the last couple of years, have become line items,” she said. “At the end of the year, when you’re afraid you’re gonna be in the red and not the black, those things add up.”
The Yerbys stay involved in their local rural community by being involved in a number of Ag organizations. Ryan and Danielle serve as district IV directors and Grant Parish chairs for the Louisiana Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee. Ryan serves as Grant Parish Farm Bureau president while Danielle serves on the Louisiana Farm Bureau Women’s Committee.
“We do what we can to preserve the land and preserve the community. We try to give back whenever we can,” Ryan said.
The Yerbys’ farming enterprise began when Ryan returned to Colfax after graduating from LSU in 2004 in agribusiness, but he did not just leave there with a degree-that is where he met Danielle--a native of Branch, La.--who graduated in 2006 with a degree in human resource education. After as stint working for Sunshine Equipment in Thibodaux, Ryan returned to the farm where his father, Charles has made a living tending crops since 1955. In January 2013, their daughter Reagan was born. Ryan Jr., now 5-years-old, rounded out the next generation of Yerbys.
“Dad was an innovator around here. He was the first one to start with irrigation here. He started with precision leveling, and the polypipe. And he was one of the leading ones to usher in corn to this area,” Ryan said.
One may wonder--with the annual threat of the Red River’s impeding floodwaters, yield-suppressing droughts, skyrocketing input costs, and volatile commodity prices—why would anyone want to endure such a challenging, if not, at times, tempestuous way of life? The surprisingly unprovoked answer came most astutely from the Yerbys’ 9-year-old gingham-clad daughter, Reagan.
“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” she said.
Reagan’s parents corroborated.
“We live a good life. I couldn’t think of raising our family any other way,” Danielle said.
“I look at farming and agriculture as the last honest living there is” Ryan said pensively. “When you watch your kids grow up in the fields, on the farm, they are not facing urban sprawl. They are riding horses. They’re riding go-karts and dirt bikes. That’s the benefit.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
SUNSET – The T-Moise Farm is a complete farm-to-table operation, from raising the animals to processing meat in a licensed facility for retail sales.
The farm’s specialty is free-range, grass-fed pigs. Tim Melancon and his wife, Monica, fell into this niche after buying two Berkshire hogs, Wilbur and Minnie, from a neighbor for $100 each.
“That’s how it started,” Tim explained.
He did some research and found that Berkshires do well on grass.
Berkshire pork’s proponents will tell you the meat has a darker, richer color with an abundance of intramuscular marbling- comparable to prime beef, with a distinct flavor and tenderness.
When they wanted to expand their herd, Tim and Monica bought a stud Berkshire boar, Sherman, from Iowa. But Sherman hasn’t been living up to his potential lately so Tim and Monica will probably buy another Iowa hog soon.
Tim said the porkers seem happy and content with their diet of grasses, including crabgrass and Johnsongrass. “They thrive on it.”
He claims grass-fed pork is cleaner. And he eats what he sells. “We like to eat, and so we want to eat good.”
They have eight 5-acre paddocks for pasture, and a supply of seed to plant for sorghum sudangrass, cowpeas, sunhemp and a variety of other grasses.
Piglets get a special grain diet obtained from Georgia but it contains no growth hormones. About 10 percent of the herd’s nutrition comes from grain for a growth boost, and the rest of what they eat is from forage. Anyone who doubts that pigs will graze like cattle should see these Berkshires voraciously chow down on grass. They literally are four-legged Weed Eaters.
“They thrive more on grass than other pigs,” Tim said. “They could live on just grass.”
Tim said neighbor Daniel Lyon doubted that the pigs would graze. “He couldn’t believe it. I broke out a video and there they were, eating grass like a cow.”
He said the pigs get needed minerals from the grass. “That’s why a pig digs a lot, to get minerals out of the ground.”
Pigs’ digestive systems have a difficult time with corn, Tim maintains, but they thrive on grass. “That’s my theory, and it’s been working.”
Monica revealed that when they started out, they had problems when a pig would get sick. “At first it was difficult because we didn’t know who to call,” she said. Even local vets don’t know a lot about caring for sick pigs, she said. But their Iowa hog connection put them in touch with a vet who provides medical advice.
Tim first learned the basics about pigs from his father and grandfather, growing up on a farm not far from where they live now between Church Point and Sunset. His father, Frank, grew rice and row crops but also had pigs.
His father had 200 hogs at one time, and he used sale barns to market his crop. Tim said the Oscar Mayer company approached his father about producing pigs for them. But his father turned down the offer after learning about the feed mixed with hormones that Oscar Mayer would require.
His grandfather, Moise Melancon, had a 920-pound boar named Buck. “He would ride that pig to go get his cows.”
When Buck was butchered in January 1970, it made the Opelousas Daily World newspaper that reported Buck produced 250 pounds of sausage, 125 pounds of boudin, 43 gallons of lard and 350 pounds of meat.
Tim started farming and he especially liked growing corn, his favorite crop, but couldn’t make money at $3.50 a bushel.
“We were one of the first in the area to do a winter wheat crop.”
When the bottom fell out of farming in the 1980s, Tim started working offshore but his heart was on the farm. “It was always in my blood. I was born to farm.”
He eventually left his offshore job and he started T-Moise Farm.
Monica said the goal of raising food to sell came from their desire to produce meat free of artificial hormones.
Now T-Moise Farms is approved, certified and licensed to process, package and label their products as well as products for other producers.
“We are state inspected,” Monica said.
Before they started their own operation, they had their hogs butchered and packaged at Eunice Superette. But that processor, now under the name Coastal Plains, no longer processes hogs, Monica said.
It took 3 years to get through the complete state inspection process, and 2 years to build their facility using the state standards for a meat-processing operation.
Monica took on much of the paperwork burden, and she attended classes to get certified with the state health department. She is now certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an HACCP producer, or Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point. If you Google HACCP you’ll learn it is “a management system in which food safety is addressed through the analysis and control of biological, chemical, and physical hazards from raw material production, procurement and handling, to manufacturing, distribution and consumption of the finished product.”
After going through the regulatory labyrinth, one of their biggest challenges currently is finding a butcher willing to work for $25-30 an hour depending on experience. Monica said it’s not easy to find someone who knows how to cut meat.
“It’s a lost trade.”
Work is almost complete on a retail sales building at their facility at 683 Bearb Road near Sunset.
They also sell their products at the Lafayette Farmer’s Market at the Horse Farm on Johnston Street on Saturday mornings. If you’re lucky, Tim will be making a batch of jambalaya but be prepared for a line of hungry customers.
Tim will do a custom cochon du lait using a large mobile cooker made by his nephew, Jude Lalonde of Cecilia, who also helped design the processing building. The cooker mounts on a flatbed trailer that he hauls to a site while the cooking is in progress. He’s done a cochon du lait at the Farmers Market and usually sells all the meat he cooks in the pit.
The Melancons now have a state-of-the-art, computerized smoker that can process 600 pounds of sausage.
One of Tim’s specialties is sweet potato and boudin pie. It’s a tasty combination of boudin covered with pureed sweet potato. No crust. He got the idea from a small store near Sunset that stopped making it. Tim tried making a few and the reception was positive.
“For a year, people were begging him to make it,” Monica said.
They have the capability of processing deer and other wild game, but the demand will have to be sufficient to accommodate that service, Monica said.
Their operation is open for farm tours. They hosted 120 participants in April for a gathering of Women in Agriculture.
They buy their Angus cattle from cow-calf operations looking to get rid of cows that no longer produce calves dependably. A few months on grass, and the cows are ready for market. “We stay away from that chemical stuff and fast-grow stuff,” Tim said.
They have about 400 meat chickens, and 200 of them will be ready for sale in about 6 weeks. They also sell eggs from laying hens.
“We sell a lot of chickens,” Monica said. “People like our chickens.”
Their sheep are three-quarter Katahdin and a quarter Barbados. Monica said their most prized lamb product is a lollipop cut with a long rib bone.
They grow vegetables in a high-tunnel greenhouse and some of what they grow is used in their boudin.
“When I first came here, it was 50 acres of chicken trees,” Tim recalled.
Tim and Monica have been together for 8 years – they met online - and they each brought individual talents to the partnership. Monica is originally from Peru. She migrated as a young girl with her family who came to the U.S. on a visa 40 years ago.
She worked as a district manager for a hotel gift shop business, and she sold real estate, all in the New Orleans area.
As the first in her family to speak English, Monica was the go-between. “I had to do everything for them.”
But agriculture was not in her past. She recalls when she was a girl, her mother bought a chicken that became a pet. “She slaughtered it, and we couldn’t eat it,” Monica recalled. She’s gotten over that now, however.
Monica’s role as a go-between for her parents probably prepared her well to deal with regulatory bureaucracy.
She has tapped into several U.S. Department of Agriculture and rural development programs that have resulted in financial assistance to get their business off the ground. A cost-share grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has helped with marketing and labor expenses. “We were the only entity in Louisiana to get one of these,” she said. “There’s a lot of help available, but people don’t know where to look.”
Their 1,700-square-foot processing facility located on the farm maintains 45-50 degrees in the workroom and commercial kitchen, and minus 7 in the walk-in freezer. Carcasses can be hung in the walk-in cooler.
Monica said the six-figure investment will give them flexibility, and they won’t be dependent on someone else to handle orders for butchering and preparing meat.
“We didn’t want to have to wait for something to happen,” Monica said.
On this day that something is happening in the T-Moise Boudin Division. Clifton Chenier is providing background music. Workers Eddie Lewis and Seth LeBlanc, Tim’s nephew, are helping Tim and Monica make about 110 pounds of boudin from scratch. Onion greens are cut, onions are chopped, and spices are added to the pork and rice (long-grain Jazzmen rice grown near Crowley developed by the Rice Research Station) all cooked in a large iron pot.
“This meat is from a sow that was walking on pasture Monday,” Monica said.
Tim got his recipe from his father and grandfather, but he keeps the ingredients and proportions secret. “He wouldn’t give that recipe to anybody,” Monica said.
“It’s just one I picked up through the years from my dad,” added Tim who’s also working on a recipe for a beef boudin.
After the boudin mix is cooked, it’s tossed in a big mixer. Then while it’s still warm, the contents are stuffed into the casing with a machine. The process is quick, and in just a couple minutes, about 15 feet of boudin rope is laid out on tables. It’s then smoothed out for even consistency and cut into manageable sections, then cooled on a rack in a chilling room overnight before it’s steamed.
Between boudin batches, lunch is served. Boudin, of course, is the main and only course. After all, it’s a meal in itself. Dessert is boudin and sweet potato pie. This must be the origin of the phrase "high on the hog."
“We eat good around here,” Tim said. “We don’t make a lot of money but we eat good.”
Story and photos by Derek Albert
When it comes down to differing viewpoints, Vermilion Parish farmers Laura Hebert and her father, Dane, may be at opposite ends of the spectrum. It’s new school versus old school, shifting methods versus trusted tradition, introversion versus extrovert.
Neither person in the father-daughter duo is afraid to admit that they sometimes butt heads. But despite the quandaries that may sometimes arise from their differing opinions, the pair is progressing to promote what has become a thriving fourth generation operation.
“I feel like I’m always trying to think ‘work smarter, not harder,’” Laura said glancing cautiously over to the Hebert patriarch who said he often rebuts with, “There is no shortcut to success.”
As a seasoned farmer, Dane Hebert said it is important for him to see his daughter continue farming in their bucolic parcel of Vermilion Parish for a number of reasons.
“It keeps the tradition alive, and it keeps this farm going,” the elder Hebert said.
“Somebody has to feed this hungry world.”
In their efforts to feed the world, the Heberts together grow about 600 acres of rice and soybeans and work to feed the expanding demand for the region’s popular crustacean commodity—crawfish. Dane Hebert said, in the early 80s when he started raising crawfish in rotation with his rice crop, the crawfish operation was merely an economic enhancement on his operation. Now, he says, crawfish has become more of a necessity for south Louisiana rice farmers.
“Forty years ago, crawfishing was something in the winter months to kind of supplement the farm—a little lagniappe,” he said. “Now, you almost can’t survive in the rice industry without it. There’s not too many rice farmers that I know who don’t crawfish to supplement their farms.”
So far this crawfish season, farmers like Hebert are seeing a slump in the amount of the prized shellfish that are showing up in their traps. Though she said some farmers were able to haul in decent catches early on in the season, crawfish populations have fallen off since.
“For the acreage that we are crawfishing this year, we should be catching triple what we are catching now,” Laura Hebert said.
She added the anomaly of lower-than-average catches has led to a “strange” season thus far.
“Usually, we will have one pond that’ll do real good and some others slack off, “Laura Hebert said. “But this year they’re all equal.”
LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant agent Mark Shirley, who specializes in crawfish production said the low numbers that are widespread across the Louisiana crawfish industry can mostly be blamed on Mother Nature. The cooler temperatures that have blanketed southern Louisiana can cause slower growth rates and reduced movement in crawfish ponds, he said. In order for producers to increase their ponds per acre harvested, Shirley said daytime air temperatures would have to be closer to 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
“We haven’t had the truly warm spells during wintertime that we sometimes experience,” he said. “Water temperatures have stayed consistently cooler than in the past years. Crawfish growth and activity is closely related to temperature.”
Shirley said another challenge that crawfish farmers are contending with is the onset of crawfish white spot virus which has become more prevalent during the first week of April. He said he has been getting an influx of calls from across south Louisiana regarding dead crawfish floating in ponds, which he says is the first sign that the pond is affected by the disease. He further explained it is typically the larger crawfish that die off first when the white spot virus reaches a particular pond.
“It’s not affecting all of our crawfish production, but we are seeing it in a few ponds in just about every (crawfish-producing) parish,” Shirley said.
For farmers who suspect their crawfish have contracted the white spot virus, he said the AgCenter is collecting crawfish samples to be tested to verify the presence of the yield-robbing affliction. So far, this season, Laura Hebert thankfully said she has not seen signs of white spot virus affecting of the ponds she fishes in Vermilion Parish, but it is something that keeps her vigilant throughout the season.
Laura Hebert said farmers like herself could use the economic boost that a good catch would render because of the increase in input costs. Prices for fuel, fertilizer and bait have left producers with tighter margins, regardless of the commodity. For the Heberts, reducing fertilizer application rates and rice seeding rates are two ways they hope to offset the higher production costs, but the elder farmer warns that they can only reduce rates so much before seeing yield losses.
Among several supply chain issues affecting crawfish farmers is a low availability of menhaden (commonly called, pogie) which is used for baiting crawfish. Hebert said while there is usually several vendors who sell pogie, there has been only one supplier who has the bait locally available this year.
“They do usually run out later in the season, “Laura Hebert recalled. “But at that point, we can use artificial bait and not make too much of a difference, but this year they ran out early.”
While growing up on the farm in north Vermilion Parish, Laura watched her father and brothers raise rice and crawfish crops, but she did not have hard set aspirations for running an operation on her own. The impetus for her agricultural entrepreneurship came to her when helping on the family farm while attending the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where she earned a general studies degree.
As far as Laura Hebert’s most recent rice production is concerned, 2021 was a rough year due to heavy rains throughout the growing season and increased disease pressure—in the form of sheath blight and cercospora—but the ratoon crop rice offered a silver lining to a difficult season.
“Second crop was able to boost us back up, better than we’d thought. We had some fields that were in the 20s (bushels per acre), which is good for second crop” she said.
Her father, nodding in agreeance, asserted, “Second crop made the difference for us.”
With the many challenges that the area’s rice and crawfish farmers can face, it can seem somewhat surprising that a new generation would want to venture into an agricultural enterprise. But both Heberts—elder and younger—agree that farming offers a demanding but rewarding lifestyle.
“It’s always been a challenge, but it’s a good way to raise a family,” Dane Hebert said.
“It was never easy, but I survived. It’s cyclical; you have to ride the ups and downs. Your heart has got to be in it.”
It seems apparent that the agricultural apprentice’s heart is indeed “in it.”
“Even though there are struggles, I still wouldn’t want to do anything else,” Laura Hebert said. “Farming is what I grew up with; I watched my dad do it all my life. Just being able to farm with him and see us grow together is beneficial enough for me.”
Story and photos by Derek Albert
Along a seven-mile stretch of the meandering LA Highway 105 in St. Landry Parish, there’s a lot going on. While some fields look fallow and bare, there are fields with sugarcane stubble gradually emerging from the long rows. There are also recently planted corn seeds just beginning their path to becoming tall stalks. Then there are cattle grazing along the western-facing slope of the Atchafalaya River levee. And making this variety of vegetative ventures possible are the Canatellas.
Vince and Charles Canatella farm approximately 4,000 acres in the eastern portion of St. Landry Parish with a diverse arsenal of crops that take advantage of the rich alluvial soil. As of the 2021 harvest their farm consists of 2,000 acres of soybeans, 300 acres of corn and winter wheat planted on fallow ground. Canatella Farms has produced mostly grain crops in the area, but the family operation has taken on a crop that has not historically been seen in that slice of the Pelican State—sugar cane. The father-son pair planted their first sugarcane crop in 2016 expanding to about 1,600 acres of the sweet stuff.
“In our little community from Krotz Springs to Simmesport—along the Atchafalaya River—was the last area that didn’t have any cane,” Charles said of the St. Landry Parish region that hugs the western bank of the river.
In attempting to lessen the effects of another rainy growing season, the Canatellas said all the land they use to grow cane will be precision leveled after the upcoming fall.
“One of the main things we saw after the first year we harvested was dealing with all of the water and the rain. It was a wet year too,” Charles said reflectively. “So, after that, we decided everywhere we were putting cane, we were going to level. Drainage, getting water off and getting the ground level was one of our top priorities.”
The Canatellas reflect upon their transition into the sugarcane industry remembering the challenges of taking on a new crop. Vince said aging equipment and the need for specialized implements posed some issues. But needing more labor to plant and harvest the cane crop was an adjustment for the new sugarcane farmers.
“It’s as resilient crop,” Vince said thoughtfully, “We’ve gone through probably one of the worst freezes we have had around here in two decades and it was probably one of our best crops that we have harvested. That was after going through one of the wettest springs and summers.”
Farmers can look back at the 2021 calendar that was dominated by weather anomalies. The late-February freeze that Vince alluded to brought sub-20-degree temperatures and a layer of ice across South Louisiana. That unusual blast of frigidity was followed by what seemed like constant rain for most of the prime growing season for the region’s agricultural crops. But once Mother Nature’s 2021 deluge ended, it was time to lay new seed cane in the ground. Weather during the soon-to-follow sugarcane harvest remained dry offering the Canatellas the opportunity to cultivate fallow land shortly after harvesting. Even with the weather challenges, the Canatella’s crops thrived producingan average of 42.5 tons of sugarcane per acre and 60-bushel soybeans.
This family farm differs from many multi-generational agricultural operations. Charles’s grandfather---also named Charles--was in the grocery business. The elder Canatella lent his family name to Canatella’s Grocery—a Melville mainstay since the early 1920’s. It wasn’t until just after WWII when Canatella purchased a tract of land along the Atchafalaya River that is a piece of what Charles and Vince Canatella now farm. A farm foreman was hired in the 1960s to oversee the agricultural operations. In 1982, Charles graduated from LSU and returned to St. Landry Parish to begin his career with Vince later joining the operation.
Vince pointed out a benefit of farming in St. Landry Parish in their linear corridor along the Atchafalaya River is a lack of urban sprawl. The farming operation consists of mostly contiguous farmland dotted with a sporadic house or two along the gently winding LA Highway 105.
“We don’t face the issues of burning cane or traffic issues with harvesting and hauling,” Vince said.
The impetus for starting to grow sugarcane in the area started as an appeal to local farmers from Acadiana-based sugar mills that were looking to expand their grinding capacity for the annual harvests. The Canatella joined a harvesting group that provides thousands of tons of harvested stalks to the Louisiana Sugarcane Cooperative (LASUCA) in St. Martinville, about 60 miles south of the Canatella’s farm.
LASUCA Grower Relations Manager John Hebert said there is now about 10,000 acres of sugar cane grown in that area that is harvested and processed at the St. Martin Parish sugar factory. He said prospective sugarcane growers sparked the influx of acreage that is harvested in that area.
“There are some good, quality growers there on very fertile ground,” Hebert said. “They showed interest in sugarcane, and the rest is history.”
Hebert said the Canatellas’ reputation as productive farmers preceded them when they endeavored to add sugarcane to their farm’s agricultural portfolio.
“They have a good reputation for the types of yields they make on the crop they grew before they got into cane,” Hebert said. “If you know how to manage a business properly and follow good agronomic practices, you’re going to make a good crop no matter what you grow.”
American Sugar Cane League General Manager Jim Simon said there is a recent trend of seeing more sugar cane being planted in the state’s south-central region, especially in the vicinity between the Atchafalaya and Mississippi Rivers. Simon mentioned that just across the Atchafalaya from the Canatella’s, neighboring Point Coupee Parish has recently accumulated the most cane acreage in the state.
“We are expanding acreage and there’s still some available acreage up there,” Simon said. “…And they are farming some really good land.”
With input costs on what seems like an ever-rising trajectory, the Canatellas say there are steps they are taking to improve their bottom line.
“We are banding all our chemicals and we will probably make an extra pass cultivating because the diesel is still cheaper than doubling that chemical. We are backing off on some of the fertilizer using nitrogen stabilizers.”
The Canatellas stay on top of the administrative side of farming by being involved with several agricultural organizations. Vince serves as the state chair for the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation’s Young Farmers and Ranchers organization. They are also members of the Thibodaux-based American Sugar Cane League, an organization said is eyeing the federal Farm Bill that expires in the summer of 2023.
“We are starting to look at the Farm Bill’s provisions to make sure that America’s sugar cane and sugar beet growers have a place at the table,” Simon said. “We want our program to favor domestic production over foreign sugar dumped into our domestic market.”
When asked what farmers like himself are looking for from the upcoming Farm Bill, Vince echoed Simon saying he would like to see the nation’s current no-cost sugar program remain in place.
“With global issues, you don’t know where your food is going to come from,” Charles said.
“We are blessed here in this country to be able to raise everything that we need."
Story and photos by Derek Albert
A 5 a.m. phone call that prompts Nathan Miller to strap up his boots to bear a 20-degree wind chill in late January can mean only one thing—kids are on the way. While Miller often does welcome school kids to visit Circle M Farms, these kids are of the four-legged variety.
Dairy producers have maintained a strong foothold in the rolling meadows of Washington Parish making agriculture the basis of the area’s economy. While barns that house much of the area’s dairy cattle operations dot the landscape, the Millers’ Franklinton farmstead is home to a different cloven-hooved species.
Nathan Miller, wife Erin and a couple of farmhands raise a growing goat herd that consists of Nubian, Saanen and Alpine goat breeds. But the burgeoning goat breeders are experimenting with crossbreeding on their family operation.
“We’ve been doing our own crosses very similar to how they are doing crosses in beef and dairy cattle,” Miller said. “The F1 cross—the hybrid vigor that comes out of those animals is amazing.”
The family’s goat operation began in 2015 with a herd consisting mostly of Nubians, Miller said. That particular breed is popular for both milk and meat products, but Miller recognized their value in the quality of its milk.
“The Nubians are very similar to milking short-horned cattle—or Jersey--in that their milk contains really high fat content,” Miller explained. “The Alpine and the Saanen tend to be very similar to Holsteins, where they can fill up a bucket, but it’s not quite as nutritious as the Nubian milk.”
The differing nutritive qualities, production volumes and varying textures are perfect for blending into the various products that the dairy churns out, but Miller has taken to blending milk from one exotic species that makes the operation unique.
Seven head of water buffalo also call Circle M Farms home. Miller explained the docile, yet intelligent creatures are descendants of a herd that were shipped to the U.S. from Southern Italy in the mid-1970s. The exotic breed can no longer be imported into the United States due to the proliferation of brucellosis, Miller said. he is currently blending the water buffalo milk into a 50-50 blend with goat’s milk to create a blue cheese he has dubbed ‘Rougarou Blue’ because, like the fictitious creature, the product is an amalgamation from different animals.
The Millers also have additional future plans for the water buffalo milk that harkens back to the animal’s Southern Italian roots.
“There are some chefs who want to do some things with the water buffalo milk, but we want to make some mozzarella,” Miller said. “True buffalo mozzarella is legit. If you talk to some of the Italians, they’ll tell you there is nothing better than buffalo mozzarella.”
Southern Maids Dairy milked 77 goats during the 2021 production season. Most of the year’s bounty was sold to New Orleans-based retailer St. James Cheese Company. Consumers can experience the Millers’ array of dairy products from St. James who markets the Millers’ pasteurized milk, yogurt, several varieties of goat cheese, feta and their farm-to-table favorite, cheesecakes. For now, unless you search out the few New Orleans restaurants that feature some of the Southern Maids Dairy products—or buy directly from the Millers—you could be hard-pressed to find the artisanal products. The scarcity is by design.
“We really wanted to be a specialty product,” Erin said. “We don’t want to be in 40 different retail facilities. We want to keep that niche market.”
Neither of the Millers—who are raising sons Jackson,3, and Austin, 5-- aspired to brace sub-freezing temperatures to birth goat kids or herd dozens of goats eight at a time through the operation’s homemade dairy. In fact, maintaining the 40-acre farm is not even either of their full-time jobs. N
Nathan bounced around South Louisiana as the son of a Baptist preacher before settling down along the Northshore to pursue the only career he said he ever wanted to pursue—law enforcement. From behind the badge to behind the wheel, Nathan changed career paths to drive trucks from his homestead in Franklinton. Erin said as close as she came to farming during her Crescent City upbringing was a neighbor who raised chickens.
“We have done everything ourselves with our own capital,” Miller said about financing the agricultural enterprise. “It’s tough…buying fuel, fertilizer, seed and hay right now is not fun,” Miller said of the current industry-wide increases in input costs.
To aid in keeping the input costs at a manageable level, Miller dedicate about 10 acres of the farmstead’s 40-acre total to forage production. While he said he does purchase some peanut hay and alfalfa to feed some of his multi-species herd, he grows crimson clover, ryegrass, wheat and oats for most of the farm’s feed.
As for the future of Southern Maids Dairy, all aspects of the farm are seeing some sort of expansion for the family operation to meet growing demands. Miller just finished the slab for a goat barn that double the current capacity. The operation’s cheese production facility will increase its holding capacity with the installation of new larger pasteurization tanks. Miller said the size of the growing operation is contingent upon only a couple pf factors—the demand for their artisanal products and he and his wife’s sanity.
“I don’t know that we want to get much bigger than we are going to be this year,” Nathan forecasted.
“Seventy-seven (goats) was pretty busy last year, so doubling that will be even busier. We will see what happens at the end of this year. If we keep having demand for it, we will continue to process it.”
For a look at the many products that the Millers sell and the animals that help to make them, visit the Circle M Farms/Southern Maids Dairy Facebook page. For a look at the St. James Cheese company, visit their Web site, www.stjamescheese.com.
Story by Derek Albert
Food and fiber are familiar commodities to Louisiana’s agricultural stakeholders, but with recent legislation some agricultural researchers have shifted their focus to something a little less familiar—therapeutic cannabis.
Also referred to as medical marijuana, therapeutic cannabis is growing in popularity as patients with debilitating ailments turn to the burgeoning industry for relief.
The advent of the state’s therapeutic cannabis program began in the halls of the state capitol. With the passage of the Alison Neustrom Act in 2015, the Louisiana Legislature opened the doors for the use of medical cannabis for the treatment of a number of ailments including epilepsy, depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome and even to combat some of the side effects of medical treatments including chemotherapy for cancer patients. From this act, licenses were awarded to the LSU AgCenter and the Southern University AgCenter for growing the medicinal plants.
“The legislature decided that the AgCenters (both LSU and Southern University) would be good institutes to grow the plant because we had done that with all the other commodities,” said Ashley Mullens, coordinator of the LSU AgCenter Therapeutic Cannabis Program. “We know how to grow plants and develop best management practices. We know how to bring the science into commodity development. We thought we could bring the same research that we had done with rice, sweet potatoes and sugar cane to the cannabis plant.”
Due to stringent governmental regulations, research with the cannabis plant has been limited up to this point to institutions that would clear the onerous regulatory hurdles, Mullens said.
“There has not been a lot of research,” Mullens said. “A lot of it has been anecdotal.”
Mullens said the LSU AgCenter’s goal with this project is to eventually create a similar genetic development platform that has been developed and refined for the state’s other agricultural commodities.
“We eventually want to become the genetic library where we are breeding and conducting research on the plant and one day have a genetic database for the traits that people are looking for whether it’s disease resistance, high THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) or pest resistance,” she said.
Industrial hemp is another piece of the agricultural puzzle that the AgCenters are involved in researching. Industrial hemp was designated as an agricultural commodity by the 2018 Farm Bill. Mullens explained hemp is a similar plant to therapeutic cannabis but with a decreased potency of THC.
“Medical marijuana and industrial hemp are both cannabis sativa,” she explained, “Anything that is above 0.3% THC is considered marijuana. Anything below is industrial hemp. But they are the same plant.”
With less governmental regulations, the industrial hemp trade has expanded since its release to farms throughout the state. Hemp can be grown outdoors in mass quantities which Mullens said can offer Louisiana farmers another commodity to add to their agricultural repertoire. While the industrial hemp research projects are still in their infancy, Mullens said the LSU AgCenter has not released any grower recommendations or best management practices yet.
Under this Neustrom Act, patients who get authorization from a physician could access products such astinctures, topical creams, inhalers and edibles. This legislation established the protocols needed for the state to regulate how the cannabis plants are grown, how the products are made from the plants and who can sell them. The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry oversees the regulatory processes that distribute the products throughout the state.
The Louisiana Board of Pharmacy initially awarded 10 licenses statewide for dispensaries that are allowed to sell the therapeutic cannabis products. One of those 10 original dispensaries is Medicis Pharmacy, in Lake Charles, which touts a growing patient base who are turning to therapeutic cannabis rather than other traditional prescription medications to treat chronic pain and other maladies.
More recent legislation, passed during the 2021 Regular Legislative Session, expands the availability of medical cannabis to the smokeable flower or “bud” form.
“It’s all grown indoors and tested,” Thibodeaux said of the products available through Medicis Pharmacy. “They test it for everything from heavy metals to pesticides, solubles, fungus and mold.
You’ll know exactly what you’re getting.
Mullens said the LSU AgCenter is well prepared to offer the flower to dispensaries as they have stockpiled product in preparation on the January 1 release date.
“With the passage of flower, we are going to need a lot more canopy space,” Mullens said. “So, we have been actually freezing product. I feel as people become more and more comfortable with the smokeable flower, that it will increase demand for these products.”
As Southwest Louisiana’s only medical marijuana pharmacy, Medicis Pharmacy is prepared to feed the growing demand for the flower form as the market opens this January.
“It’s accessible. It’s efficient,” said Medicis Pharmacy owner John Condos. “And for many people, it’s a familiar form.”
The Medicis staff stressed that the flower being grown by the AgCenters, regulated, and measured by the LDAF and sold by dispensaries like Medicis, is safer than anything available on the black market. While contraband marijuana may offer relief to those who seek it out, the products sold without regulation or oversight could include fungus, mold or even other medications such as the potent painkiller, Fentanyl.
Patient access is a priority to Condos and Thibodeaux, so to get the therapeutic products to patients without delay Medicis Pharmacy offers a web site where patients can access a full list of treatable conditions, find and contact prescribing physicians and order the medicinal products and high-quality implements needed to consume the products. Condos said to further patient access Medicis is now providing home delivery of its growing line of products.
Victor Wukovits said he became a patient of Medicis Pharmacy after a pair of reparative surgeries—one on his back, another on his right bicep. After years of attempting to quell the severe pain in his arm with other prescribed medications, he turned to Medicis for relief from a topical ointment applied directly to the skin.
“I put on the lavender balm, five minutes the pain is gone,” Wukovits said referencing some of the products Thibodeaux was processing a table over. “What I know is, I put something on that hurt a lot and five minutes later, the pain was gone. That’s effective medicine.”
To further explore the products offered by Medicis Pharmacy, visit their website www.medicispharmacy.com.
Medicis Pharmacy is located at 1727 Imperial Boulevard, Building 4, in Lake Charles.
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
DERIDDER – It’s milking time at the Hill Crest Creamery, and as usual the same two cows are always at the front of the line.
Number 13 goes in first on the right side. Number 1701, first on the left.
Neither is the alpha cow of the herd of 34.
“They’re just creatures of habit,” explains owner Daylon Schmidt.
Schmidt, 22, has become a creature of habit also, milking the herd at 6 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. Cows don’t have holidays and they don’t take time off for disasters like hurricanes.
“We don’t even get off at Christmas,” Daylon said.
He also didn’t get a break after the 2020 hurricanes hit. A 60KW generator provided power to run the milking equipment, burning more than 1,000 gallons of diesel. After Hurricane Laura, the generator ran for 18 days, and 7 days after Delta.
The worst thing that could happen would be a sudden halt in milking. “If they’re producing a lot of milk and you stop milking them, they’ll get sick,” he explained.
When it comes time to gather the herd for milking, Daylon has help. Three cow dogs are used to rousting the bovines resting under shade trees and cooling off in a pond.
The dogs do their job silently. No barking allowed.
“They get in trouble if they bark” Schmidt said, explaining that stress such as loud noises might upset the cows and reduce their milk production.
A scoop of feed for each milking stall persuades the cows to enter the milking parlor. “If we don’t do that, they won’t come in.”
The milking machines and cows’ teats are cleaned before and after milking. Afterwards, eats are swabbed with a special solution to ward off bacteria.
The parlor can milk 8 cows at a time. A milking takes about 15 minutes, and currently the dairy has 34 cows to milk. “You don’t want to milk them too little and you don’t want to milk them too long.”
The herd consists of Brown Swiss and Jersey breeds, with a couple of Holsteins.
Daylon said he would like to be able to milk more cows at once, but he realizes the cost of expanding would take a while to pay for itself.
The business sells a variety of dairy products including whole milk, buttermilk, chocolate milk, yogurt, butter and cream. Their products are available at the Hill Crest Creamery, 635 Willow Branch Road, DeRidder. Several area stores carry their products, and it’s also available at farmers markets as far away as Lafayette.
Louisiana law prohibits the sale of raw milk that has not been pasteurized, a process of heating the milk to 145 degrees to kill harmful bacteria. Hill Crest products are pasteurized but not homogenized, a process that gives milk its rich, white color and smooth texture. Milk that has not been homogenized contains a layer of cream that rises to the top of a glass.
Milk from the cows is pumped into a 600-gallon chilling tank. From there, it goes into the pasteurizing machine. The temperature of the milk is constantly recorded on graph paper.
“An inspector looks at every one to see that we did it right,” Daylon said.
Following the afternoon milking, the herd is moved for the night to another pasture with better grass. In the summer, Daylon said, cows eat more after the sun goes down.
Summer forage is made up of whatever grows in the fields, Daylon said, but ryegrass provides winter grazing. He also provides hay, although last year’s hurricanes blew away his hay barn.
Cows can’t be milked year-round. Daylon said they get a 2-3 month rest each year.
A cow with its first calf at about 30 months is ready to milk, but the first lactation period usually produces a low volume.
“The third or fourth lactation is probably the peak,” he said.
Typically a cow on a small dairy such as Hill Crest can provide 6 or 7 years of production, he said, but large dairies only get a year or 2 out of a cow.
The dairy has a Brown Swiss bull, but he said usually cows are artificially inseminated.
Daylon’s father and grandpa had a dairy but it went out of business and the family started the Sunrise Catfish Farm south of DeRidder where people pay to catch catfish. His uncle owns that business now.
Daylon learned much of what he knows about milking cows from working at another dairy.
Daylon has help from Anna Decker, whose family sold the dairy to Daylon. Her experience on the farm is obvious as she skillfully handles the cows effortlessly. “This is where I grew up,” she said. “This is what I’ve done since I was big enough to milk.”
The Decker family built the dairy 37 years ago.
Daylon and Anna are Mennonites. Holdeman Mennonites, more precisely, named after John Holdeman, the American founder of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.
Their lifestyle is marked by simplicity in dress, possessions and hard work.
The men have beards, and women wear head coverings on their hair.
They believe they should remain separate from worldly things, i.e., popular music, professional sports, fashion, smoking, television, dancing, alcohol, un-Christian books and magazines and musical instruments. Mennonites do not vote or serve in the military service or hold government office.
(Daylon requested no photos of him or Anna be taken.)
According to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, the Highland Church of God in Christ, Mennonite congregation south of DeRidder, was established in 1937 by families from Texas who wanted to get away from the devastating dust storms of the 1930s.
They moved to cheap land in Louisiana that was deforested and undeveloped. Noah Schmidt was the first to move in June 1937 to the area south of DeRidder that became known as the Mennonite Settlement. Six other families arrived that same year, including their minister, F.C. Fricke.
In 2000, because of the Highland church’s growth, another congregation was established east of DeRidder. It is known as the Southern Magnolia Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.
Keith Hawkins, LSU AgCenter county agent in Beauregard Parish, said Mennonites have several businesses in the area, such as the Highland Growers that sells ag-related products.
“I’ve had very positive experiences dealing with Mennonites,” Hawkins said. “They’re hard working people and they do quality work. They add a lot to our community.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
DERIDDER – It’s a sunny morning at the Doherty tomato farm, and proprietor Sara Doherty is flitting back and forth from field to field like a bumblebee.
“I’m sorry we’re so busy, but you gotta work when it’s not raining,” Sara explains.
She’s checking on her 16,000 tomato plants, and so far things aren’t looking good. The rainy, cloudy weather has delayed the crop.
“This weather has been killing us,” she said. “Too much rain. Too much rot. I’ve had people call from Lake Charles and they lost their whole gardens. But that’s farming. That’s what happens with farming.”
Sara has several plants that are dying, and some tomatoes are rotting from excess moisture.
But most of the plants are loaded with green tomatoes mixed with ripening fruit. The cloudy days have delayed maturity.
“In another week, these things will be red,” says Sara’s husband, Jim.
A row with at least 50 ripe tomatoes is targeted for the daily harvest. She made variety selections based on maturity timing to spread the harvest throughout the summer. But she’s afraid this year, because of the wet weather, the whole crop may be ready at once.”
Tomatoes that aren’t suitable for selling are chopped up to make salsa, and Sara’s operation sells 300-400 cases of it a year.
Sara is hard-headed about several things. First, she won’t sell her tomatoes wholesale. “When you buy a Doherty tomato, it’s been picked that day.”
Tomatoes you buy at the big groceries have been developed for long shelf life and to endure shipping, but not for flavor.
Sara takes a pragmatic approach to her money-making enterprise. “This is a business. This is not a big garden.”
But beyond the profit, Sara admits running the operation is satisfying when everything comes together. “I enjoy every single minute of it.”
Her tomato career started 19 years ago when her grandsons wanted to buy video games.
Sara was determined to make the boys realize the value of work. “We’re working type people. I said, ‘You boys need to learn to work and make money.’ So I decided growing and selling tomatoes would be a good way for the boys to work and make money for their videos.”
Jim bought a tiller and Sara started gathering information. Some told her not to get carried away with her project. Just a few tomato plants would be all she could handle. That went in one ear and out the other.
“Number 1, don’t challenge a woman,” Sara said. “Number 2, I’m a visionary. I see it happening before it happens.”
She went to a nursery and bought 200 tomato plants, but she still had garden space left so she bought another 200.
When the tomatoes ripened, a sign was erected at their place near Bundick’s Lake. Her plan worked as the boys made enough money to satisfy their video craving, and folks around the area started craving her tomatoes. “People saw my signs and they just kept coming.”
Word-of-mouth was the best advertising at first.
“The second year, I did 4,000 plants,” Sara recalled.
Jim was floored at her ambition. “I told her ‘You’re crazy.’ “
Sara believes in providence. If she finds a useful article on gardening while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, she chalks it up to one more example of divine intervention. “God is in charge of everything.”
Maybe that’s what happened that one year when two tomatoes grew together into the shape of a rubber ducky. Sara’s visionary instinct kicked in and she capitalized on the faux canard. She made the front page of the Beauregard News, and her following grew more.
“I bet you I had 200 people who came to see that rubber ducky and bought tomatoes.”
She had TV commercials, magazine and newspaper articles. Food writer and Chef Marcelle Bienvenu did an article.
Eventually, she became known as The Tomato Lady. People might not be able to remember her name, or how to pronounce it, but they remember The Tomato Lady, and they certainly won’t forget Sara if they meet her. She’ll talk your ear off with fascinating stories, and she admits to being a bit different.
“I am an unusual person. I am a little eccentric.”
Word spread about The Tomato Lady’s tomatoes. She even heard back from someone who had been talking with fellow travelers in Colorado who -- upon learning they were from DeRidder –asked if they knew the Tomato Lady.
“We have appreciative customers, and I thrive on that,” Sara said. “All our produce is guaranteed.”
She’s on Facebook under “Doherty’s Homegrown Tomatoes – Sara” with contact information.
Sara has stands in DeRidder, Sulphur, Lake Charles and Beaumont.
Her stands have more than just tomatoes. “I can’t afford to pay somebody just to sell one crop.”
Other locally-produced products are offered, such as squash, cucumbers, peas, jams and jellies, and watermelons, although this year’s melon crop is considerably late because of even more weather-related problems.
Another grower uses some of her land for his melon crop that she sells. “He’s going to take care of me, and I take care of him.”
She tried growing cucumbers and squash, but now she buys from other growers. She has been growing cantaloupes but between the deer that feed on the plants and the weather, she’s about ready to call it her last cantaloupe crop. “The deer have just murdered me. If I don’t make money, I ain’t doing this.”
Sara and Jim have a division of labor, and they focus their expertise on what they know.
“He doesn’t know squat about tomatoes,” Sara revealed.
But Jim knows electronics and they owned a cable television company in rural southwest Louisiana until they sold it in 1989 when they moved to Beauregard Parish. “We raised cows and golfed.”
Golf went by the wayside, but Jim still has a herd of 50 Black Angus and he handles equipment maintenance.
Later in the summer, Jim will start making weekly drives to Georgia to buy peaches to sell at their stands.
Hurricanes ravaged their place last year with 130-mph winds that tore their home’s roof off, collapsed a greenhouse and blew away a barn. They’ve been living in their RV, and work on their house is nearing completion, although heavy rains caused a leak that will require extensive renovation.
As they tried to recover from the hurricanes, their disaster wasn’t over.
In February, they replaced their greenhouse destroyed by Hurricane Laura. “Two days later, the snow came and it collapsed.”
But she was able to grow a limited amount of tomato seedlings for sale in both ends of the greenhouse.
Every year, the tomato fields are plowed for the next season. Before transplanting, new rows are made and covered with plastic mulch - black plastic for the early maturing varieties and white plastic for the later maturing ones. To keep tomato plants from falling over, a special tool wraps a plastic tie around the vine where it touches the wire suspended by T-posts.
She relied on 5 tomato hybrids this year: Bush Early Girl, Sunstar, Dream Girl, Bella Rosa and Mountain Merit.
She also has cherry tomatoes and heirlooms. “I personally think they’re overrated,” she said. “I like a good old red tomato.”
She has a crew of retired folks to work the stands.
By late summer, her crop has played out, and Sara takes it easy. “I eat and sleep in August because I run all over before. I love every minute of it.”
To get her tomatoes picked and nurtured, she relies on local workers, many of them still in school “I taught them to get out of bed and get to work every morning.”
Two of her workers will graduate from college next year, and she’ll miss their skills. “They’ll do whatever I need them to do.”
Sandra Bailey is one of her workers. She handles a variety of chores, from running a tractor to picking the crop. “I love it out here. I like being outside.”
Sara says fungicides have prevented her plants from suffering from the wilt that afflicts many backyard growers’ plants in the summer. “I am a true believer in fungicides.”
She prefers Quadris Top, an expensive product only available only to licensed pesticide applicators.
She learned about the product from her son-in-law.
Her oldest daughter, Lucia Strader, a biology professor at Duke University, advised Sara to start her tomato seedlings in sterile soil – cooked to 1500 degrees to eliminate harmful bacteria. That prevents a disease called “damping off” that occurs in young tomato plants.
“Ever since I did that, I’ve not had one case of damping off.”
She uses her kitchen as a grow room to start her tomato seedlings in crawfish platters, 2,000-3,000 per platter. In a week, the young plants are ready for transfer.
Keith Hawkins, LSU AgCenter county agent in Beauregard Parish, said using sterile soil can prevent disease problems. “If you use native soil, it has native fungus that will cause damping off.”
Hawkins said Sara’s success is due to her business acumen and her passion for the crop.
“She is just a very energetic lady and she loves tomatoes. Just loves tomatoes.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
MILTON – Max Bacque takes a minimalist approach with his grass-fed herd of Angus cattle.
“Regenerative agriculture is what I’m down to,” he said. “Getting the soil, animals and grass to the point where we don’t need any inputs.”
Instead of spraying buttercups and other weeds with herbicides, Bacque prefers mowing. He doesn’t use fertilizer, and his cattle are raised hormone-free.
Max said this system has several advantages. “It’s good for the environment. It’s good for the animal. But it’s also cheaper.”
His priority is what many consumers want to hear these days.
“It all comes down to animal welfare,” Max said. “If the animals are being treated well, I’m OK with it.”
Max said he would like to increase his herd size gradually. “I’ll never be trying to get to the 1,000-head scenario.”
Beef from cattle raised locally draws sales, Max said, especially when he has a chance to talk with potential customers and explain his approach to animal husbandry. “That is far more valuable than the buzz words “grass fed.”
He said he stopped using fertilizer and other chemicals on the farm about 5 years ago. “It was almost like the system had become dependent on that input. Now it’s getting stronger every year. It’s an ongoing science experiment that never stops, and I think that’s why I enjoy it so much.”
Max had been in the solar energy business before he started raising cattle but that endeavor changed after tax incentives were reduced. He graduated from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette with a degree in renewable resources and later returned to ULL to study biology.
Max uses 36 acres for grazing the herd of 26. (The 27th was on its way at press time.) The cattle usually determine the grazing rotation for his paddocks, he said. He will put them on ryegrass in the winter for about an hour a day. For the other paddocks, he moves them as the grass gets lower. “As grass gets more prolific, I can leave them longer.”
Grass fed beef is more expensive because it takes longer to raise an animal to marketable size without using corn. Max’s calves are slaughtered at 24-30 months, at roughly twice the age of grain-fed calves.
Max uses Bahia, bermudagrass with sorghum sudangrass and brown millet. The Bacque operation also has enough pasture to grow hay for the herd.
The herd’s 10-year-old bull, Hamburger, is a dependable producer, Max said.
The bull was a gift from now-deceased attorney Minos Simon and was raised as a pet. When he was temporarily brought back to the Simon farm, he kept busting out of fences, but Max said Hamburger is a gentle giant back on the Bacque property. “He’s so gentle.”
Many cattle operations have limited breeding seasons, and bulls are kept apart from females the rest of the year. But Max prefers to leave Hamburger with the herd year round.
“There really is a social hierarchy,” Max said. “I feel like they all get along better if they grow up together.”
He doesn’t castrate his young bull calves. That means he has to watch over his herd to make sure none of the young studs are starting to challenge Hamburger.
By avoiding castration, he doesn’t have to use hormone supplements that would enable steers to continue quick weight gains.
Max said he had crop of calves die one year, and a vet determined nutritional deficiency was the problem. He was allowing cows to wean their calves and that meant that a cow would give birth and the previous calf would get to a mother’s colostrum before the newborn could nurse on the important nourishment. And the colostrum would be of low quality, lacking complete disease immunity for young calves.
Stan Dutile, LSU AgCenter county agent in Lafayette Parish, said it’s advisable to wean a calf at about 7 months. “That gives that cow several months to regain her body condition.”
The Bacque cattle are processed at the Eunice Superette to slaughter, flash freeze and package the beef. Max said it’s one of the few facilities that handles grass-fed beef.
There is talk of new facilities planned for the area, including a processor in Vermilion Parish for cull cattle that are usually sold at sale barns and end up as ground meat, Stan said.
Max currently sells his products, Boeuf de Bacque, at the Handy Stop in Lafayette, 444 Jefferson St.
Before the pandemic, he sold his beef at several places, including the Biergarten, a local art gallery and the Lafayette Farmer’s Market.
He delivers for established customers. “They have a standing order. Every month or so, I deliver straight to their houses.”
A lot of his sales depend on word-of-mouth and social media. “It’s part of the fun of this whole thing.”
His Facebook page, Bacque Farms, has contact information, recipes and ordering details.
As things start to relax with COVID, Max is ready to resume full-scale business.
“I am excited to get back into it. Selling the meat is the easiest part of this.”
Selling local grass-fed beef takes some of the uncertainty out of the equation. Selling cattle at the sale barn and to stockyards leaves a producer subject to the whimsy of the beef market that can take dips and dives.
Max’s father, Dr. Frank Bacque, started raising cattle on the family property back in 1985 after he returned from Germany where he was an army doctor at Nuremberg.
The land, 360 acres that straddle the Vermilion-Lafayette Parish line, has been in the family since his grandfather, Frank Bacque, bought it in 1929.
The senior Frank Bacque was a county agent in Lafayette Parish and a teacher.
Dr. Bacque has fond memories of the farm.
“We used to come out here as little kids with my grandfather. When my Dad had it, we had to work. It’s still a helluva a lot of work, but it’s fun.”
Frank Bacque, Odon Bacque, sold Encyclopedia Britannica and Great Books of the Western World.
“He was the No. 1 salesman in the United States, Frank said.”
When he was growing up, Frank said he thought he might become a mechanic, but his grandfather steered him to medicine. Frank became a urologist after attending LSU Medical School. His residency was at Baylor University.
He worked as an Army doctor for 3 years, returning to Lafayette in 1980 to start his practice that he continues on St. Landry Street across from the old Lourdes hospital site.
Frank said working on the farm is his way of getting away from the routine, and the peaceful setting helps him put everything in perspective.
Secluded on the Bacque land is a magnificent home moved from the White Castle area in the 1970s that would be livable with a sizable amount of money and work. Massive live oaks stand majestically throughout the property, forming a small paradise. He particularly looks forward to mowing the pastures. “It’s addictive and relaxing.”
Frank said he ran the farm as a cow-calf operation, selling groups of calves raised like most cattle in the area. “Max changed everything and went to grass-fed.”
Sugarcane is also grown on the Bacque family land by the Albert brothers.
The Bacque family also owns 600 acres in the Port Barre area, acquired by Frank’s grandfather.
Farmer Steve Stagg grows soybeans on the property.
Max said wild hogs have been a problem in the past on the Port Barre farm. Now that Stagg has killed more than 600, they are less plentiful.
But beavers have built dams that block the water flow on a nearby stream and that floods soybeans, which typically don’t like to stay wet.
Stan said he has been getting more calls about beavers. “In the last 3 years, they’re all over the place.”
The Bacque's credit the LSU AgCenter’s Master Cattleman classes taught by Stan and numerous other LSU AgCenter cattle experts. “You learn something every time,” Max said.
Max graduated from Master Cattleman in 2016 with Frank, who has taken the class five times.
“There’s so much material, you can’t absorb everything,” Frank said.
And Frank said Stan’s eagerness to share information is a big plus. “Stan is one of the favorite speakers at Master Cattleman,” Frank said. “He is a great teacher.”
Stan said a new Master Cattleman class will begin in July in Lafayette. The first Advanced Master Cattleman class, interrupted by COVID last year, is expected to resume this year, he said, and the second advanced class is expected to begin next year.
Stan said the Master Cattleman classes allow cattle producers to meet people that they might not normally encounter from the veteran cattle owner to the novice. “You get all different kinds. That’s one of the most positive things about the classes.”
Max said the social aspect is a major reason he enjoyed the class, and that’s also why he likes selling the Bacque beef. “I really like the people I deal with and meet.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
ESTHERWOOD – It all started back about 30 years ago when Trent Broussard and Aaron Dore were in elementary school and they worked as ball boys during Notre Dame Football games.
They struck up a lifelong friendship that evolved into D&B Farms with crawfish, cattle and rice.
“Needless to say, we’re like brothers now,” Trent said.
After graduating from Notre Dame in 2002, Trent went to McNeese University with Aaron, who
graduated from Notre Dame in 2001, but Trent moved to Howard College in Big Spring, Texas, to join the rodeo team there as a bull rider.
Aaron graduated from McNeese with a degree in agricultural science, and Trent left school 9 credits shy of getting his degree in ag business.
After college, Dore was working for Francis Drilling Fluids and Trent was working cattle and breaking horses. One day, they both decided to leave their jobs to start farming together.
“This was always our dream to do what we’re doing,” Aaron said.
They had a small herd of cattle and they began their crawfish farming enterprise with 300 acres of ponds.
“We planted our first rice crop in 2013,” Trent recalled.
They started with 100 acres, then 600. The next year, they grew twice as much. “That’s when prices were the worst,” Trent said.
Along came 2016 with the devastating floods. “We lost a lot of money.”
Trent said the rice went underwater and sprouted and they had to use a boat to get to their harvest equipment. One field only made 18-20 barrels and it was sold for about $12 a barrel.
“We learned a lot from that,” Trent said. “We are thankful to be in business today.”
Upon starting their farm, they relied on advice. “A lot of friends have helped us a lot on the way,” Aaron said.
Several farmers, including Ross Thibodeaux, Wes Simon and Dennis Hensgens were eager to help.
Trent said one of their landlords, Steve Cart, has helped them make their operations more efficient.
Trent’s parents, Scott and Julie, have the Acadia Crawfish processing business in Crowley.
Aaron’s family has a background in the rice business. His grandfather owned Dore Rice Mill in Crowley.
But neither man had a working knowledge of growing rice.
They have each carved out their own specialty on the farm. Aaron mainly is in charge of the crawfish, while Trent manages the rice crop.
They have about 1,300 acres of crawfish.
To harvest crawfish, they have four airboats, made by The Weld Shop in Mermentau, to avoid rutting fields. The airboats are powered with 350-cubic-inch engines.
They still have conventional boats, but they are now propelled by basket wheels instead of lugged wheels.
They use about 10 traps per acre, baited with pogey chunks. Warmer weather in April will allow the use of artificial bait.
In 2014, they bought the crawfish wholesale business, Southern Specialties, when it was based in Iota. Eventually, they realized they were spread too thin and they relocated the crawfish business south of Estherwood.
They buy crawfish from other producers, and buyers ship their product across the south, from Texas to Florida.
“We had to start from scratch,” Aaron said. “We’re finally getting it somewhat together.”
“It’s getting better,” Trent added. “The whole operation is getting better.”
For now, Trent said they expect to improve their operation instead of expanding more.
“My oldest son is 15 and Aaron’s is 11,” Trent said. “When our kids are of age to work on the farm, we’ll think about growing.”
Throughout March, they were disappointed with the catch, but it started picking up with warmer weather and Easter demand was high.
The crawfish are larger than last year, they said, but the catch is considerably lower. Many of their neighbors have the same complaint.
Aaron said last year, their crawfish wholesale business bought 7,600 sacks of crawfish in February. By late March, they had bought less than 2,500 sacks.
Some producers are the exception, he said, with good catches but they’ve been outnumbered by producers with less-than-normal harvests.
He said the catch could increase late in the season. “Some years, you can make it up. It’s bumping up a little but nothing significant.”
On the other hand, the price has remained high, he said, because of the lower catch numbers.
Aaron said the hard freeze in March halted the crawfish harvest. “It stopped those crawfish for 3-4 days. Completely stopped them. We’ve had cold weather but nothing like this.”
They wonder if the hurricanes had some adverse effect on the crawfish. And they are sure that the catch on their second-crop rice fields haven’t peaked,
They use a rice-crawfish rotation on the farm near Estherwood. On the farm near Gueydan, they have a cattle-rice rotation.
They have a herd of about 100 head of commercial cattle, and they use Charolais bulls from a seller in Missouri.
Trent said crawfish doesn’t work well on the farm near Gueydan because geese eat most of the rice stubble.
“The challenge of this operation is the distance,” Trent revealed.
Their Gueydan farm, with cattle and rice, is 20 miles from Estherwood, and the crawfish headquarters is in between.
The good thing about driving back and forth is that they get to observe what their neighbors are doing. “We’ve got some guys around us who’ve been pretty successful, and we try to follow them.”
Since Trent and Aaron can’t be everywhere all the time, keeping everything going requires good help.
“We’re very fortunate we’ve got some good crews.”
Mexican labor and a few locals keep things going, he said.
His father’s crawfish processing operation has a large Mexican work force, and many of them have been working at the Crowley business for almost 20 years. “They’ve watched me grow up,” Trent said.
The first rice of 1,300 acres was planted this year on March 8 with a RiceTec hybrid planted at 22 pounds per acre with a 30-foot air drill. Their seed is treated with Dermacor for weevils and AV1011 bird repellent.
The last field to be planted was on the farm southwest of Gueydan. It was sprayed before planting to kill weeds, then no-till drilled with hybrid rice seed.
The Gueydan location is a pump-on, pump-off field, surrounded by a high levee system. ”It’s a totally different animal down here.”
Saltwater intrusion can be a problem with a drought, he said.
In addition to hybrids, they also will use Provisia on about 200 acres this year to address bad red rice and outcrossing problems that can no longer be remedied with Newpath herbicide.
They were pleased with last year’s rice yields in the mid to upper 50-barrel range. Trent said they had everything cut before Hurricane Laura except 100 acres of late-planted rice that still yielded over 40 barrels.
They are heavily involved in show cattle with their kids.
Aaron’s family shows Beefmaster and commercial cattle, while Trent has red and gray brahmas along with Simbrah.
They each have quite a crew to enter the show ring.
Trent and his wife, Lannah, have 7 children. Oldest to youngest are Trent Jr., Cooper Mary Reece, Jacob, Owen, Mariana and Eleanor.
Aaron and his wife, Lauren, have 6. The oldest is Elliot, followed by Camille, Charlotte, Caroline, Catherine and Cassidy.
“We just came back from the International Show in Waco,” Aaron said, explaining that the event was held to replace the cancelled 2021 Houston Rodeo and Livestock Show.
One of their Beefmaster heifers won reserve champion in the senior division, and they cooked crawfish at the event.
Trent enjoyed bull riding. “I wasn’t nearly as good as my little brothers.”
Trey and Taylor Broussard have made a name on the rodeo circuit.
Some of Trent’s kids participate in rodeo. “We don’t let them ride bulls,” he said. “Instead, they rope, and we try to stay with show cows. It’s a lot safer.”
Jeremy Hebert, LSU AgCenter county agent, said both families are quite active in livestock shows.
“They’re big into cattle, and they have a successful crawfish operation."
Hebert said it’s encouraging that young farmers such as Aaron and Trent are continuing a way of life.
“They’re going to keep that legacy going.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
HATHAWAY – On this warm spring day, planting time is just around the corner for the Heinen farm. Will Heinen and his father, Dave, are waiting on seed that will arrive any day now.
In addition to working with his dad on 650 acres of rice, Will plans to have his own 50 acres of rice this year in addition to his 70 acres of crawfish. It will be his second year of planting rice, and he’s had crawfish fields for 5 years.
Last year, Will’s rice made 49 barrels an acre with no second crop. He said his crawfish production was good, but most were on the small side.
He’d hoped to have seed in the ground by mid-March, but he was waiting on his hybrid seed to be delivered for planting with their 20-foot drill. In the meantime, there were fields to plow and laser-level.
Dave said he is waiting for warmer weather to plant. “Hybrids don’t take cold well.”
He said he relies on hybrids exclusively. “XL753 has been my best so far, and Gemini has been really good.”
The biggest weed problem is second-generation weedy rice, he said, and he’s used Provisia to tackle that challenge. “Provisia is perfect. It does what it’s supposed to do.”
Dave said he only used the PVL02, but the yield was low. “I’ve never made over 23 barrels with Provisia.”
Dave and Will also have crawfish. Will said their catch dropped, like everyone else’s, but the catch was great on the day the freeze arrived. “It was actually our best day, when we had to shut down.”
On a day in mid-March, the catch was 18 sacks on 90 acres, but Will was confident the number would increase.
Dave said their buyer, cousin Fred Heinen, reports that demand from commercial accounts is increasing quickly. “He said the orders are really big this weekend.”
Will and his father use a crew of three Mexicans to harvest crawfish.
Dave said he’s had the same crew for the past 7 years, and it’s worked out well.
Two years ago, they switched their crawfish boats from the cleated cages to basket cages, and the drive wheels leave considerably less of a track through the mud. Will said they rely on a nearby welder, Brock Young, for the basket cages. “He can make just about anything out of metal that you need.”
Dave said it’s rewarding to have Will working with him. “It seems like you’re working for something now. Not just working to retire.”
Dave said he had been able to pick up 250 acres for Will. The land had been his great-grandfather’s originally.
Dave started farming in 1985 after the death of his father, Walter Heinen. He said his father had farms in Orange, Texas, in addition to Vinton, Iota, Mowata, Whiteville and Hathaway. They were on the roads as much as they were in the fields, Dave said.
“After my dad died, I said I will never travel more than 5 miles to any farm.”
He has stuck to that pledge with 650 acres of rice and 650 acres of crawfish near his home. “I can go around everything on my farm in 2 hours.”
Dave can often be found fixing the land and roads with his dozer and his dog Winston at his feet.
Will graduated from Welsh High School in 2013. His mother, Arlene, was principal at Welsh Elementary.
Will attended LSU for a year, and he graduated 2 years ago from McNeese University with an associate degree in general studies. While at McNeese, he was on the rodeo team as a steer wrestler.
Will has continued with rodeo, but with team roping. He’s the heeler who ropes a calf’s back feet, while his partners, Gabe Crochet or Nick Sabelhaus, ropes the head. Sabelhaus is also the ag pilot for the Heinen crops.
While growing up, Will and his three sisters showed cattle in 4-H. “I always got the crazy ones.”
Will has his own herd now. He and his wife, Tina, enjoy working with the cattle. On Sundays, they’ll saddle up their horses and tend to their herd of 20 commercial cows and calves, and check on fences.
“I enjoy that,” she said. “I’ve learned to love it.”
“She caught on quick,” Will adds.
Will’s father has a herd of about 250 head with neighbor Rick Crochet.
“He’s always helping us, and we’re always helping him,” Will said.
Will said he didn’t lose any cattle from the hard freeze, but he lost several calves before from a cold, rainy spell.
The only damage from last year’s hurricanes was fencing, Will said, and it took about a week to get everything back to normal.
Will and his father use Angus, Charolais and Brangus bulls. They use Superior Livestock to sell most of their calves and replacement heifers. “All the steers we sell ahead of time. We raise them to 500 pounds.”
So with the crops and cattle, is Will Heinen a farmer or rancher? “Both. But I say the ranching is fun to do.”
He’s passionate about his livelihood, and he doesn’t need time to explain why. He said he looks forward to every morning when he can jump on his four-wheeler and ride the ponds to check on water levels.
“I love what I do. Every day is a new day. And I like being outside.”
Even when it’s cold? “For some reason, I like it.”
Tina agrees. “It’s almost like it pumps him up when it’s a miserable day to be outside.”
The area has a growing pig and coyote problem, and Will is trying to reduce the number even if it means staying up at night .
“He’s not very good at sitting still,” Tina said.
Will has a thermal scope that allows him to see the pests from a distance in pastures around the house. A friend has a drone with a thermal camera to find them in rice fields.
In the past 2 months, he’s shot more than 40 coyotes with his .308 rifle. He figures the number for the past year is just over 100.
Tina is a speech therapist for St. Nicholas Center for Children in Lake Charles. She works with autistic children ages 2-21, with a variety of challenges in communication. “They all have different needs.”
Many of her students lost their homes during the hurricanes, she said, and that turned their worlds upside down. “That’s their joy, having a routine.”
Tina earned her bachelor’s degree in communications disorders and her master’s in speech language pathology, both from LSU.
She knew about farm life before she and Will were married 2 years ago. Her father, Dennis Hensgens, farms rice and crawfish in the Crowley and Iota areas.
Tina has a menagerie with a couple of Nigerian dwarf goats, an overweight miniature Australian shepherd, a miniature horse, and an orphan calf. Will has a few dogs too. He’s taken in a stray basset hound, Fred. “I couldn’t help but pick him up.” And he has a few Labs.
Tina branched out in a new area last year. With COVID, she had to be at home a lot and work online.
“It was nice to be on my porch with that view.” But she found herself with a lot of extra time, so she began following up on her artistic interests. “I’ve always done artwork here and there.”
She took a few stalks of headed rice and made impressions to make a mold in clay, then poured plaster over the mold to get a relief casting.
Several people have come to her with rice from their fields to be cast into an object to be hung on their walls, recognizing that this is much more significant than some massed produced wall hanging.
“Harvest is very meaningful to anyone in a farming family,” she said. “When you have that labor of love, you want to display it.”
Some young farmers come to her with a few stalks of their first crop, and some families bring rice from a lost loved one’s last crop. “It’s like a snapshot.”
She has a casting of her late brother William’s last crop.
Tina also does castings of religious icons and symbols. “Our Catholic faith is pretty important to us.”
The sideline business took off so much that Will built her a studio atop their barn.
“My hayloft became her studio,” Will said.
Tina has a website for her artwork at
www.tinaheinencollection.com She’s also on Facebook and Instagram.