Story and photos by Bruce Shultz
ROANOKE - Two dozen Yankees invaded Jefferson Davis Parish recently to learn about crawfish and rice farming.
Most were retired farmers from the Madison, Wisconsin, area.
They were visiting the Tall Grass Farm owned by Burt Tietje (pronounced tee-jay) near Roanoke. He’s done tours of his farm numerous times, and he has several more booked this year.
“This is our biggest draw in Jefferson Davis Parish,” said Dion Sablehaus with the parish tourist commission. “It’s a very unique experience. Even people from our area don’t know what goes into farming crawfish.”
Already, she said, four bus tours and 15 school groups have booked the crawfish tour.
In his presentations, Burt tries to be as thorough as possible with the brief time he has with the group to explain the crawfish life cycle, biology, ecology and economics, and he also talks about growing rice.
He mixed that with some humor for the Wisconsin visitors.
“Around the first of October, LSU usually loses its first SEC game and I know it’s time to turn on the pumps,” Burt said, getting a hearty chuckle from the group.
He asked the group if any of them farmed, and several hold up their hands. “Then you know nobody can cry like a farmer.”
He explains how a crawfish swims in reverse. “I always say it kind of reminds me of a Louisiana politician.”
He stressed that crawfish are unpredictable, subject to numerous variables.
The farmers in the crowd asked several relevant questions about traps-per-acre, harvest frequency and details about the crawfish boat.
Dick Colby, wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt, asks a question that reveals his farming background with alfalfa, beans and corn. “Is this land normally this level or do you have to level it?”
John Link, a corn, wheat and soybean farmer, was intrigued with what is required to run a crawfish operation. “It looks like a lot of work to me.”
Burt admits to the crowd that he has someone do the harvesting for him now because of tendonitis from the repetitive motion of lifting, dumping, baiting and replacing the traps.
Another corn, wheat and soybean farmer, Jim Qualman, asked about the moisture level for harvesting rice, and whether the grain has to be stirred in the bins.
Later, Qualman said he was impressed by the amount of work involved before harvesting any crawfish. “People think you just do this overnight but it ain’t that way.”
Pauline Ballweg couldn’t get over the lack of topography. “It’s so different. Very flat.”
But she didn’t want anything to do with eating crawfish. “We don’t eat crawfish where I’m from.”
Ray Antoniewicz, a sheep farmer, said the variables in crawfish farming add to the risk factor in farming. “I can see where you’ve got a lot more things you can’t control.”
Antoniewicz said he was glad that Burt talked about where food comes from. He said he conducts tours of his sheep operation during lambing season.
Burt was at home with the farm crowd. “We all talk the same language.”
Pam Jahnke, who has a farm show on 26 radio stations and one TV station in Wisconsin, was pleased. “This is what we came for. We’re all connected with agriculture.”
(You can see and hear her presentations on her website, www.fabulousfarmbabe.net/, and eventually the segment on the Louisiana visit will be included. She’s also on Facebook.)
But Jahnke, who grew up on a dairy farm, admitted to Burt that she and her fellow Wisconsites were out of their element when it came to aquaculture. “You’re talking to people who have no foggy, flipping idea what you do.” She interviewed Burt for her show, and fired off several to-the-point questions, like, “There’s not a mechanical way to harvest these little rascals?”
Jahnke said farmers in Louisiana and Wisconsin have a stake in what happens with renegotiation with NAFTA, and the farm bill debate.
After the tour and Burt’s farm, the group traveled a couple miles to I-10 Crawfish where the day’s catch is processed and shipped out.
He tells them the crawfish trade is as unique as the farming practices. “It’s the last true supply and demand in the agricultural market that I know of. It’s a conversation between the buyers and sellers every day.”
The group was pleased that they had finally gotten to see agriculture between the stops in San Antonio to see the Alamo and New Orleans.
“This will be the top on our list,” Betty Buss told Burt on her way to the tour bus. “We don’t care about museums.”
Tietje started doing the crawfish tours in 2008 at the urging of his boss at the time, Marian Fox of the Jefferson Davis Tourism Commission and Economic Development Office.
He’s had a wide variety of groups, from Amish farmers from the Midwest to local school kids. “I change my lesson, my vocabulary, depending on the age group I’ve got.”
After the Wisconsin group, his next tour is a bunch of second-graders. “I just have to adjust. I had a whole busload of German tourists and everything I said had to be translated.”
He recalled giving a presentation for two Russians. “Evidently they grow some crawfish in southern Russia. One of the Russians told me, ‘In Russia we drink beer and eat crawfish.’ I said, “Here too!”
The Jefferson Davis Parish Tourism Office books his calendar as one of several activities a group does in one day.
Travel writers have figured out that Tietje is a good source for crawfish information so he can be found on TV and in newspapers and magazines, talking about crawfish and rice. “It’s not like I go out and seek this. It just comes out of the blue.“
A piece done by WBRZ-TV in Baton Rouge got sent up to network headquarters in New York and Tietje ended up in an interview with CBS anchor Scott Pelly. A group of travel writers, so stuff pops up in publications all over the place.
Tietje’s father and grandfather farmed the land where he farms.
“We’re a Century Farm. The state has a Century Farm program for farms in the same family for more than 100 years. My grandfather got here we think about 1895.”
Tietje said his grandfather, William F. Tietje Sr., was a German immigrant who came to the U.S. at age 14 and first went to Iowa, then moved to Louisiana at about age 20 about 1888.
“My dad said he homesteaded a piece of land in Allen Parish near Kinder. And he traded his 180-acre homestead for 80 acres where we’re standing here, and married the daughter of the farmer across the road and then bought that farm from her family.”
Tietje said his research has revealed that rice farmers in the time frame of 1910-19, with increased food demand from World War I, were profitable and many paid off their farm loans quickly.
But after WWI, the bottom fell out of the rice prices. “A lot of farms traded in the 1920 because of that precipitous fall of prices.”
The farm is located in a low area of the parish.
“This used to be a marsh, particularly the bottom of my farm. It was a great inland marsh that was about 4 miles wide and 20 miles north and south called the Grand Marais. You didn’t get to Jennings from this farm unless you went to Roanoke and got on the train or you went all around it, 10 miles north and 10 miles back by land.”
Burt had bins built on the home place after the Roanoke rice coop dryer closed.
“It’s twice what I need, so I paid for it by drying other farmers’ rice.”
He usually has 200 acres of rice and about 135 acres of crawfish. “You can’t make a living on those 2 things at that level, so I’ve always looked for other sources of income.”
Burt, an education graduate from Baylor University, is a former photographer who had a studio in Jennings, photographing babies, high school seniors and weddings. He got out of the business during the transition from film to digital.
When digital displaced film, he said, “I felt like a really good harness maker after the Model T came out. All the darkroom knowledge I had, throw it away. I didn’t want to spend that many hours in front of a computer.”
He accepted the change, but he had a plan to grow vegetables along with rice and crawfish. “I always knew I wanted to end up here on the farm.”
How did he come up with the farm’s name? “Rice is basically a tall grass. And as you look around you see I don’t mow much, so Tall Grass Farm.”
You can see his website at www.tallgrassfarm.net.
He started two high-tunnel greenhouses with help from the Natural Resources Conservation Service program to grow vegetables to sell.
High tunnels give him opportunity to plant in rainy weather. Sides are dropped when the weather turns chilly or windy, although the structures are not heated. “If it goes to 24 degrees like it did this winter it will get 25 or 26 degrees. You’re going to lose delicate stuff.”
He has a drip irrigation system in the greenhouses to give the plants water and liquid nutrients.
“There are a lot of things we can use that are approved for organic. Sometimes I get desperate and I have to use something to control pests. I try to stay as close as I possibly can to organic.”
He sends soil sample results to a consultant in South America for advice on soil amendments. “He takes my analysis and gives me a recipe.”
Burt admits if he had a larger operation, he would have to spray pesticides more often, but he prefers to stay small.
“Here’s one form of agriculture I can do. I don’t need a $200,000 tractor and equipment and maintenance.”
He uses composted cotton gin trash to add organic matter to the soil. “I get 18-wheeler loads. When it gets here, it’s smoking hot.”
He depends heavily on advice from Kiki Fontenot, horticulturist from the LSU AgCenter. “I can text her any time and she gets back to me.”
This year he watered heavily, and condensation built up on the greenhouse walls, providing a layer of insulation. “I walked into my greenhouse and it was 42 degrees. Of course the sun came out, the condensation melted and it went to 24 degrees.”
You name it, and he grows it. Cabbage, radishes, chard, kale, collard greens, arugula, French sorrel, Swiss chard, broccoli, and now he’s trying asparagus.
“Salad greens is really one of my signature crops.”
Midsummer gets too hot to grow anything but a few things like cucumber.
“And in the summer, everybody has got their home gardens, and so when somebody gives you tomatoes from their garden, the value of tomatoes is zero. But in the wintertime when they don’t have anything, and I’m the only game in town, I get a premium for my stuff.”
He also grows some plants outside in raised beds but the plants in the greenhouses grow better because they are protected from the wind and storms, he said.
He sells his produce at the farmer’s market in Lake Charles on Tuesday, Tuesdays, 4-6 p.m. at the intersection of Enterprise and Broad streets.
Tietje said at 63, running a commercial garden is becoming more of a physical challenge. “I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked, physically. That’s why I so desperately need an intern, because my back can only do so much. But I love it.