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.”