Story and photos by Bruce Shultz
ABBEVILLE – If you want to find Allen McLain Jr., you’ll have to look in several places.
He might be checking on his rice crop, or he could be meeting with his crawfishermen. But then again, he could be on an excavator doing dirt work for his father, Allen McLain Sr., or there’s a good chance he’s boiling crawfish.
He said the crawfish harvest was slow at first this year because of cold, cloudy weather. But warmer temperatures and sunshine in mid-March gave crawfish a boost. “It seems like every week, they just keep increasing in size. The Good Lord made us struggle for a while but we’re reaping the benefits now.”
He said the invasive mollusk, the apple snail, has been found in large numbers in his fields, but they don’t seem to cause any problems, although a farmer in Acadia Parish reported last year that they were clogging his crawfish traps. “We’ve had them 3-4 years. It’s never gotten so bad where we had to leave fields.”
McLain said he suspects the snails came from irrigation water pumped from the Vermilion River.
What crawfish McLain doesn’t use for his boiling operation is sold to a wholesale buyer near his farm. He and his wife have a custom crawfish catering business, and they also boil crawfish for Shuck’s restaurant in Abbeville six nights a week.
The catering business has out-of-state clientele. Once a year, they cook crawfish for an agricultural company in Colorado.
They also boil crawfish for the Louisiana senators and representatives in Washington D.C. He said during a rice-related trip to Washington, a Mississippi congressman talked him into boiling crawfish on Capitol Hill, and the congressman liked the result. “He said, ‘OK, you’re coming back next year because this is the best crawfish we’ve ever had.’ “
They also boil crawfish for school fundraisers, and for neighborhood block parties. And if someone wants an ice chest full of boiled crawfish, he can do that too.
He said word-of-mouth has been the best advertising for the boiling business. “I didn’t expect it to get this big.”
McLain said he’s been approached to open drive-through boiling operations around Abbeville, but he doesn’t want to spread himself too thin.
Mark Shirley, LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant aquaculture agent, said many farmers are good at producing crawfish, but McLain has the drive and knack for selling his product.
“Allen is not only a good producer of crawfish, but he’s good at marketing. He’s got a good businessman. With the help of his family and employees, they have developed a good chain of wholesaling and boiling.
McLain uses front-wheel paddle boats for crawfish. “They leave the least amount of ruts, and they are easier to fix.”
Allen has 850 acres of his own rice. Most of his rice is planted in CL111, but he also has some in Provisia.
He also farms with his brother, John, and father, Allen and together they have about 2,300 acres.
Last year, he had 300 acres of Provisia. The yield and milling quality were not as good as he expected, but he said much of that could be blamed on the weather. He said the Provisia technology’s ability to clean up red rice was good, however. “It cleaned up everything very well. The weed control is there.”
He had finished planting by the end of March.
McLain said his biggest problem in his rice crop is a weed known as Neally’s sprangletop. “You can spray it, and 2 weeks later here it comes.”
He said plowing seems to be the best remedy to upset the hardy root system.
Dr. Eric Webster, LSU AgCenter weed scientist, said Neally’s sprangletop is difficult to kill but it can be controlled with RiceStar HT. He said once the plant reaches maturity with a seed head, the plant is not growing, and a herbicide doesn’t affect it much.
Dermacor seed treatment is used against weevils, McLain said.
A second crop is grown on all of his rice. Rice, soybeans and crawfish are used in rotation on all fields. “We don’t plant anything back-to-back.”
He left last year’s soybean crop in the field because of the bad weather at harvest and he can’t recall how many acres were abandoned. “I don’t even know. I try not to remember. It was a very good crop until it started raining.”
Andrew Granger, LSU AgCenter county agent in Vermilion Parish, said McLain is active in farm organizations, and he’s president of the Vermilion Parish Rice Growers Association. “He’s kind of a model farmer.”
Granger said McLain is progressive and willing to try new technologies.
McLain and his wife, Erin, have two boys, Allen, 12, and Luke, 11, and a girl, Kaylee, age 8. They help boil crawfish. “Sometimes it’s the only chance we get to see each other,” Allen said.
Erin, a nurse, works alongside Allen to boil crawfish, and occasionally he has to be somewhere else so the entire operation is up to her.
They are also in the middle of building a new house.
McLain said he started driving a tractor at a young age to help his father. He went to McNeese and majored in agriculture. While in school, he came home to help his dad with the rice crop, and to run crawfish traps.
After school, he worked in construction as a heavy-equipment operator. Eventually, the urge took over to return home and farm.
McLain completed the USA Rice Leadership Development class after he was chosen in 2016. He said what he learned from the class was invaluable. “It was a very good eye-opening experience to know there are people going through the same thing. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
He said he found out there was a lot about the rice business he didn’t know, and he got to know the others in the class. “We still talk and text.”
McLain has rice and crawfish on land owned by Johnny Boudreaux. “I’ve known that boy since he was in the first grade.”
Boudreaux said his son Brett and McLain were classmates at Vermilion Catholic. “He was raised right. Good family values.”