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."