Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
CHENEYVILLE – The Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation chose a highly diversified farmer with the selection of Jim Harper as its new president.
On a 9,000-acre farm that produces rice, sugarcane, soybeans, crawfish and cattle,
Harper has a good grasp of the challenges facing Louisiana agriculture.
Jim and his brother Ross also farm with Jim’s son-in-law, Britton Schexnyder, and Ross’ son, Michael.
Britton and Michael are the heirs apparent to take over the Harper farm. “Me and my brother have been planning this for quite a while,” Jim said.
Jim and Ross are 6th generation farmers. They grew up on a farm run by their father, Harvey Harper, growing cotton, corn and soybeans.
“He told me I had to go to college before I could come back and farm,” Jim said.
Both sons went to LSU. Jim got his degree in ag business, and Ross graduated with a degree in construction technology.
Jim said he joined the Louisiana Farm Bureau not realizing what it offered. “It didn’t take me long to see what a beneficial organization it is.”
He served on several committees. “I never started out to be the president, but it’s a really great honor for the farmers in the state to have the confidence in you to do something like this.”
This year, because of the virus, the annual Farm Bureau convention and the vote to select him were held virtually.
Harper credits former LFB President Ronnie Anderson for his leadership. Anderson contracted COVID this spring and was hospitalized for several weeks. “He’s doing very well,” Harper said. “It’s amazing the recovery he’s made.”
Jim said he will use his vast agricultural experience to help fellow farmers.
“My goal is to represent all of agriculture, and improve the farmers’ income, and educate the public about what a great deal they are getting with agriculture.”
One of the Farm Bureau’s main responsibilities is to serve as a watchdog for potential legislation, state and federal, that will affect Louisiana producers.
He said the Louisiana Farm Bureau provides “Ag in the Classroom” lesson plans for teachers to instruct students about the value of agriculture.
The Farm Bureau Women’s Committee works closely with food banks and also helps educate the public about the value of agriculture, he said.
This year, the Louisiana Farm Bureau was active in passing tort reform in the legislature in an effort to hold down insurance premiums.
“Agriculture has always been a passion of mine,” Jim said. “You’re independent. You are your own boss. It’s the challenge of growing the crop every year and watching it grow.”
“But you have to have faith. My father used to say weather is 80% of making a crop and you don’t have any control over it.”
Jim admits he still worries about the weather. At press time, the Harpers were worried about the damage potential from Hurricane Delta on their cane crop. “It definitely could hurt us.”
He recalled a heavy snowfall in December 2018. “We started the cane cutters and snow blew out the fans.”
But he said the freeze last November was one of their biggest challenges. Below-freezing temperatures had them concerned that their harvest was over.
“Thankfully, LSU had provided us with varieties that are more cold tolerant.”
Jim estimated that they lost 25-30 percent of the crop to the cold, but he was surprised the damage wasn’t worse.
Extreme cold can result in high levels of dextran in sugarcane that interfere with sugar refinery. “It never got to the point that they weren’t able to process the cane.”
They started this year’s harvest of 5,000 acres of cane at the start of October.
“So far it looks like it’s going to be a very good crop.”
With only a week of harvest, Jim estimated sugar recovery from their crop at 200 pounds per ton of cane, and the harvesters are cutting about 35 tons of cane per acre.
Those estimates were made with only a week of harvest when the oldest cane, 3rdand 4th year stubble, were being cut. They expected stronger numbers with younger cane.
Most of their cane is hauled to LASUCA in St. Martinville, but some is destined for the Enterprise mill run by M.A. Patout and Son near New Iberia. Both mills provide the trucking, and the Harpers own all their harvesting equipment.
Hurricane Laura didn’t seem to cause much damage to the crop but the storm interfered with planting 1,600 acres, he said.
They usually plant whole-stalk cane, but after Laura, the seed cane was bent and the cane was cut into billets for planting. The Harpers have planters that can handle whole-stalk or billet seed.
This year, the Harpers used a starter fertilizer for the first time after planting, adding phosphorous and potassium. “That’s going to help us with the brown stripe disease.
They rely on several varieties of cane, but 299 is their main choice. They are starting to diversity with varieties 615, 838 and 804.
“We’re growing about the northernmost cane in the state,” he said. And with that comes increased risk of crop damage from a hard freeze.
Jim said 615 is not cold tolerant so harvesting it first will be a priority.
He said a test by the LSU AgCenter on the Harper farm last year showed 838 withstood lower temperatures best, with 804 and 299 showing respectable cold tolerance.
The LSU AgCenter also is conducting a cold-tolerance test on sugarcane varieties at the nearby Dean Lee Research and Extension Center.
Jim said they rely heavily on guidance from the LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist, Ken Gravois. “He has helped us tremendously.”
Jim said the LSU AgCenter will be conducting an irrigation study at the Harper Farm next year. “We’re always glad to help them.”
Gravois said he always enjoys visiting with the Harpers, and he appreciates their cooperation for LSU AgCenter research.
Gravois said Al Orgeron, LSU AgCenter pest management specialist, has conducted a ripener study there and Dr. Randy Price, LSU AgCenter engineer, was at the farm recently using a drone for that work.
Gravois said the Harpers stay current with technology and new agronomic practices. “They’re always up on the latest and greatest.”
He said Jim and Ross have organized the operation well to juggle tasks for different commodities.
“Jim is a little quiet and thoughtful, but that brain is always engaged.”
Jim and Ross have been growing cane since 1989. A sugar mill at Meeker closed in the early 80s, leaving the area without a mill for about 5 years, Jim said.
But mills in south Louisiana needed more cane and good growing conditions to the north met their need. Jim said the alluvial silt-loam soil in the area with decent topsoil provides an excellent medium for row crops about a mile and a half on each side of Bayou Bouef.
Their top weed problems in their cane are nightshades and bermudagrass. They spray a combination of atrazine and Calisto for the nightshade. To keep bermudagrass at bay, a soybean of rotation allows spraying of grass herbicides.
Aphids have been a problem, and they always spray for borers. The West Indian cane fly that was a problem in the southern part of the state isn’t much of a pest for them.
The Harper Farm has 15 workers including 5 local residents and 10 workers from Guatemala.
Getting the migrant workers into the U.S. was more difficult this year than usual, he said. “We were able to get them in just before the border closed.”
The Harpers also grow rice on ground that is too heavy for other crops. Their rice ground is leveled to a zero grade in cuts of 30 to 40 acres, with the largest at 60 acres.
To reduce rutting of their rice land, their crawfish operation uses boats propelled with Go-Devil motors.
Planting is done with a drill but they also water seed acreage that is being rotated out of crawfish.
This year, their crop produced about 40 barrels an acre and most of that came from the varieties CL153 and Cocodrie on about 700 acres.
“We just decided to stay with the LSU varieties,” Jim said.
Next year, they are looking at using Provisia rice – also developed by the LSU AgCenter -- to address an outcrossing problem.
The Harper have enough bin space to hold their entire rice crop, but they haul their soybeans to the Louis Dreyfus facility in Port Allen or Zeno in Convent after harvesting.
They harvested crawfish off of 250 acres that is rotated with rice. Like most everyone else, selling crawfish this year was a problem because of the decreased demand from restaurants.
“It was OK until the virus hit,” Jim recalled.
Crawfish this year were small, he said, and they ended up selling most of their crawfish to a processing plant near Moreauville.
In the long run, Jim estimated they lost about 40-50% of their production.
This year’s soybean crop was a surprise, he said, with an improved price above $10 a bushel. “Who knew it 3 months ago?”
He said they averaged about 60 bushels an acre.
Jim also has cattle. The 15 head are half Brahman and half Hereford bred to an Angus bull to get the tiger stripes. “I’ve got a little hobby herd that I can take my grandchildren and show them.”