Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
JEANERETTE -- Like most sugarcane farmers, Bret Allain has faced an muddy, uphill battle this year getting his cane crop out of the field and to the mill.
“It’s been a real challenge with all the rain we’ve had. It never dried up.”
Allain said if the weather stays dry for several days, he’ll move the harvest to fields with black, gumbo soil that needed time to dry up. “This year, I’ve run out of good ground.”
He recalls an even wetter harvest in 1972 when he first started working in the fields with his dad, Robert Allain. “From the first to the last day, there was hardly a day without rain.”
Tonnage is good this year, around 38 tons per acre, but sugar production is down, he said. Last year, the average sugar recovery was 225-228 pounds per acre for his farm. This year, he said, it’s about 209.
Allain said he got lucky with planting. Of 1,100 acres, he managed to get seed in place on 990 acres. He said once harvest started, he had to go back to planting after a few days of dry weather “There are people who don’t have half their crop planted.”
The cane harvest is expected to end sometime around Jan. 15-18, Allain said. That’s when the St. Mary Sugar Cooperative mill is expected to stop grinding for this season.
Allain is president of the mill that was built by his grandfather, A.V. Allain who also was a St. Mary Parish Police juror.
In 1994, the mill was expanded to a 15,000-ton capacity in a $34 million project.
The St. Mary Sugar Coop has started its own harvest group. “We had to. Everyone else was doing it.”
This year was not a good year for Allain’s 600-acre soybean crop. “I left 300 acres in the field. Crop insurance barely covered the cost of seed. And it was one of the best crops ever.”
He said the yield potential was 60-70 bushels per acre but the beans were damaged by excess moisture, and harvesting the beans would have damaged fields and required more time and money to repair ruts. “I just had to watch it rot in the field.”
Allain uses machines to plant sugarcane. He said it took four attempts at devising a planter that works reliably. “I’m pretty happy with these now.”
The Allain operation has 10 local employees and 10 H2A workers. “I’ve got good people. I don’t have to hold their hands.”
Allain has a partner, Bubba Gianfala. They started working together in 1996. This year, they are farming 5,000 acres, with more than 3,800 in sugarcane.
Allain said good varieties are keeping farmers in business. He said the 299 variety is leading the pack but 283 and 540 are good stand-by varieties. He said new varieties such as 183 looks promising.
”Varieties are our lifeblood. That’s why I fight so hard for the LSU AgCenter. If we don’t have the varieties, we don’t have the sugar industry.”
Allain swaps his farmer hat for legislator hat to fight for the LSU AgCenter. As a state senator for District 21, much of his constituency is agriculture related. The district includes all of St. Mary, and portions of Iberia, Lafourche, and Terrebonne parishes where sugarcane is the dominant crop.
He said he wants to make sure the LSU AgCenter is fully funded, and that was a challenge during the Jindal years. “We’ve been able to keep it pretty well fully funded.”
Allain said in the 2019 legislative session, he will fight again for agriculture again, particularly for maintaining funding for the AgCenter. “The AgCenter’s programs such as 4-H are important to a lot of people.”
Dr. Bill Richardson, LSU vice president of agriculture, said he is appreciative of Allain’s support for the AgCenter. “Senator Allain is a champion for Louisiana agriculture, and supports the LSU AgCenter to protect our state funding.”
He was first elected outright in 2011 to succeed former Sen. Butch Gautreaux of Morgan City. Next year, he will be able to run for his third and final term from 2020-2024. He has considered running for governor and it seems unlikely he would throw his hat in the ring, but he won’t flatly rule that out. “Never say never.”
He said he has a good chance of being chosen for a leadership role such as senate president. “There are some things I want to do in the senate.”
He said he has to fight for agriculture. He said an ongoing effort has to be made to maintain tax exemptions for agriculture spending on items such as seed, fertilizer, fuels and feed. No state has taxes on those expenses, he said, but the Louisiana legislature occasionally looks at that possibility to raise revenue. “Like I told them, if you tax those things, the price of food will go up.”
And those most affected by food price increases would be the inner-city poor, he said.
Allain said the plethora of special sessions in the past few years has not been good for his farming operations.
“Two years ago, I wasn’t here like I should have been because of all the special sessions. It costs me money to be in Baton Rouge.”
Allain said he was glad his measure passed to allow farmers to be on the roads with their tractors from sunrise to sunset instead of a half hour before sunrise and a half hour before sunset.
One area that he wants to bring up for legislation eventually involves right to repair farm equipment. Tractor makers have proprietary computer systems in their machinery with secret source codes that prevent farmers from working on their own equipment. A technician has to come out to the farm at a rate of $150 an hour to determine why a combine or a tractor isn’t working and it might just involve changing a $10 part, Allain said. The issue has been taken up successfully by legislators in other states, he said, but not without a fight.
“It’s becoming more and more of a significant issue,” said Jim Simon, director of the American Sugarcane League. “Not only is it an awkward inconvenience, it can be very costly.”
Simon said he and Allain have discussed the issue recently.
Simon and Allain were LSU classmates. “I’ve known Brett for almost 40 years. “He’s been a long-time advocate for agriculture, and sugarcane in particular. He’s always had a genuine interest in agriculture.”
Having a senator who also farms is an asset, Simon acknowledged. “When you have someone who knows the trials and tribulations of farming, it adds to the authority.”
He said Allain doesn’t shy away from speaking his mind, and a strong personality can be an asset in the legislature for getting a viewpoint across. “He’s been our go-to guy for protecting the funding for the LSU AgCenter.”
Simon also said Allain is an effective member of the League’s Board of Directors.
Allain and his wife, Kimberly, have two grandchildren, Flora and Marshall from their oldest daughter, Quinn, a physician in Mobile.
Daughter Emma is an engineer for Exxon now earning her MBA at the University of Texas.
Allain’s son, Robert Allain III, is working in the cane fields, currently growing his fifth crop. Robert is in a long family line of farmers dating back to the French immigrants of the 1700s when the Allains who were French Hugenots first came to Louisiana from Brittany.
When Allain isn’t in the legislature or the cane fields, you might find him in his woodworking shop. He cuts tenons, mortises and dovetails in cypress and oak to make finely hand-crafted furniture. Currently, he’s work on tables for family members. He also enjoys saltwater fishing, using a camp near Cocodrie as a base to pursue speckled trout and yellowfin tuna.
Allain, 60, said he doesn’t think much about retirement now. As a cane farmer, “I don’t know if any of us retire. My job right now is to help my son, like my father helped me and his father him him, gain the skills to be productive in this job.”
Greg Brown, chief engineer at the mill
David Thibodeaux, manager
Chuck Rodriguez, asst. engineer
Caldwell, purchasing agent