Story and photos by Bruce Shultz
WELSH - Craig Zaunbrecher of Welsh could only look at the dark skies hanging over a field of mature rice, and shake his head.
“This is enough to make a preacher lose his religion,” he said with disgust as rain clouds circled around the field where he had staged his combines and tractors.
Zaunbrecher started his harvest July 6, and he managed to get 500 acres cut. But rain shut down the harvest after that.
The field he was planning to cut next received 1.5 inches of rain, and he figured the ground wouldn’t be dry enough until the weekend. With four combines, he estimates he could cut as much as 300-350 acres a day, but he’s worried that he will get behind, nevertheless.
“No matter how you spread it out, we always get backed up,” said his daughter, Kali Lalande, a fifth-generation farmer who planted her first crop this year.
That field that he cut, planted with CL111, yielded 39 barrels. Zaunbrecher suspects cloudy weather at flowering probably reduced the yield by around 10 percent, and he hopes the first 500 acres is the lowest yielding of his crop.
Zaunbrecher is eager for the rain to stop so he can resume harvesting. He has four combines and 20 18-wheelers to keep the crop moving out of the fields. He has a crew of Mexican and local workers, and his father, Steve Zaunbrecher, helps by operating a combine. “We’ve got very good help.”
The growing season started well, with good planting conditions.
“This year is the earliest I’ve ever planted.”
He planted CL153, CL172, CL153, CL111, Mermentau and hybrids XL745 and XL729 on 5,400 acres. “This will be my biggest rice year yet.”
He still can’t get over he started planting Feb. 16. “I’ve never planted rice in February in my life.”
Planting usually starts in the first week of March, and wraps up by April 10.
He had 3,400 acres of crawfish, and he shut that operation down for the year in late June.
But he had to deal with flooding after he had planted much of his crop. Heavy rain inundated 1,100 acres of young rice planted Feb. 16, and it was almost in green ring. He was forced to replant 300 acres after backwater flooding covered it for 3 weeks. “It was pretty rough. I’ve never seen it like that.”
But Zaunbrecher has known darker days in his farming career.
He has 25 bins with a partner. “We can dry over 200,000 barrels and we still have room left.”
Bin heaters are butane-fueled, and all the vessels are equipped with stir-alls.
His operation extends to 23 different farms, or tracts of land. Some of the farms are contiguous, so pilots from Lake Arthur Flying Service working his crop can cruise for 3 miles before making a turn.
To keep track of the farms, he uses a handwritten notebook. “I call it my bible. Without this book, I’d be totally lost.”
A checkmark at the top of a page tells him that everything has been done to a field until harvest, and several of those pages were checked by late June.
Kali, who got an online associate degree from the University of Louisiana at Monroe, has done some of her father’s record-keeping on computer, but he has resisted using one of those newfangled devices. “I don’t think he knows how to turn on a computer.”
Zaunbrecher is worried that the consistently cloudy weather at flowering and pollination could affect this year’s crop. Dr. Steve Linscombe, director of the LSU AgCenter H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station, agrees that the weather conditions might not be the optimum conditions for a rice crop.
Linscombe said he’s heard preliminary yields that are below average, and he said below-par harvest could be blamed on, “the combination of cloud cover and the weather we’ve been having over the past 2 months.”
Zaunbrecher has 3,000 acres of beans planted in March. “We’ve never been high yielding on soybeans in our area.”
Usually 26-35 bushels of beans makes Zaunbrecher happy, although he has had harvest reaching 52 bushels.
Last year’s rice crop was 6-7 barrels off from 2015, he said. Too much rain at the wrong time, he figures. For his operation, he considers a good yield to range from 40-53 bushels, with conventionals in the low 40s and hybrids in the high 40s to low 50s.
Fields are flooded with 18 electric-powered pumps, eight fueled by diesel and 3 by natural gas.
Zaunbrecher doesn’t have to decide whether he’ll use fungicide. “We spray fungicide on everything every year. We’re too close to the coast, and I think it helps with the second crop.”
He used AV1011 to keep the birds from eating the seed on the first half of his crop.
Zaunbrecher has his share of outcrossing and herbicide-resistant red rice, so he’s eager for the availability of Provisia. “We’re definitely going to have to try it.”
He spoon feeds his fertilizer, figuring that the sandy soil won’t hold the nutrients long enough for them to be fully absorbed. “It seems to be working over here.”
Zaunbrecher knew he would farm from age 8 and he has been farming since 1984, straight out of high school. He grew up on a farm under the wings of his father, Steve, who still farms rice near Elton. “Farming is what we did, and that’s all we knew.”
He admits he almost went broke farming, and he would have thrown in the towel had his wife, Shonda, urged him to hang tough. “She has been great. She’s the one who keeps us all together.”
It’s painful for Zaunbrecher to recall how he told his wife he could see no way out of debt, telling her, ‘I guess we’re done.’ ”
“We didn’t have enough money to pay our electric bill,” he remembers.
But Shonda persisted. “She said, ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to get through this. You’ve got crawfish. Why don’t you open a restaurant?”
So they did, reopening a boiled crawfish restaurant, Frey’s, that had been started by an aunt and uncle. It provided enough cash to get a foothold on a mountain of debt.
“We worked out way out of it with family, friends and a banker.”
He particularly credits banker Ronnie Petree of St. Martin Bank for standing beside him through his darkest hour. Zaunbrecher remembers asking Petree why he risked his career standing by him. “He said, ‘You didn’t make mistakes farming, you made your mistakes at marketing.’ “
But he said there were others, friends and relatives, who also stood by him, so many that he doesn’t want to start listing them for fear he will forget someone. “So many people helped me, it’s just unbelievable.”
Zaunbrecher admits he got in that mess by sitting on a rice crop in the bins, waiting for a better price. It never came.
The experience made him more cautious. As he got back on his feet and expanded his operation, he took on partners Allen Hebert, Kenny Hicks and Bobby Hanks. He said their business expertise has helped him with selling his rice. “We’ve made mistakes in the past year and we’ve made some gains.”
Craig, age 52, doesn’t even have time to think about retirement, and he’s OK with that. “I’ll keep farming as long as the good Lord lets me. I love what I do, and I love the challenge.”
Zaunbrecher considers family his greatest asset.
His son, Blain, is a sophomore at Notre Dame High School in Crowley. Zaunbrecher said he might make a farmer out of him. “He’s more into duck and goose hunting right now.”
His four daughters have all bought farm land.
Angelica Nunez and her husband Jeremy have bought a farm. So have Lacy Guinn and her husband Philip.
Jesslyn and Brock Sullivan bought a place near Stuttgart, Ark. She works for Riceland Foods.
And then there’s Kali, the youngest daughter who’s following in her father’s footsteps as a fourth generation farmer. She bought a farm before she married Jason Lalande, who works in the oilfield and had no experience in agriculture until he met Kali.
“I taught him everything he knows, or everything he needs to know,” Kali said while driving her Ford F-250 truck crammed with new electric fencing material.
A couple weeks later, her truck was filled with maternity clothes, as she was expecting her first baby.
She also has her first rice crop this year, 81 acres between Woodlawn and Fenton, planted in XL745 at a seeding rate of 24 pounds per acre, all treated with Dermacor seed treatment. She water-leveled the land twice and reduced the number of levees.
Kali had herbicides Clearpath and Permit flown on her crop, and fertilizer was applied when the crop was not quite at heading. Tenchu was used because it’s considered safe for crawfish.
Kali has a cattle herd of around 100 head. She showed cattle and pigs in 4-H. This year, she used a longhorn bull on 11 heifers for her first calf crop that she’ll sell when they weigh 200 pounds. She plans to sell 15-20 of her calves in July and the rest in November.
Kali has a quick answer when asked why she wanted to farm: “That’s what I like, and that’s what my daddy does.”
She admits signing for a crop loan was intimidating. “When I saw those numbers, I got nervous.”
She also got nervous after planting when she checked on the seedlings struggling to break through the soil.
“She burned my phone up,” her dad recalled. “I said, ‘Don’t go in the middle of the day, or you will see nothing.’ “
Craig said he helps his children. “But we try to teach them nothing is free.”
When her sisters and other girls were playing with Barbie dolls, Kali was on a tractor as young as age 11. “I refused to wear dresses, and I wanted to be in jeans and boots, and be with my daddy on the farm. “I probably call him twice a day. We’re very close. Like best friends.”