Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
MORGANZA – Ask Matt or Marty Frey what kind of farmer they are, and they’ll have to look at their watch before they answer.
They could be in sugarcane, crawfish, rice, hay, cattle or soybeans, depending on what needs attention on Four Oaks Farm.
And while they’re tending to the chores, Marty’s wife, Jodi, and Matt’s wife, Shawn, are back in the office, handling the voluminous paperwork.
They are in the middle of a successful crawfish season. Six boats are used to harvest 1,200 acres.
They currently use paddleboats, but Matt said he wants to find out about the practicality of airboats that some have started using to avoid rutting fields.
Matt said the emphasis is placed on quality crawfish. “I want quality over anything.”
Their motto is, “Our tails are heads above the rest.”
To have adequate forage for crawfish, they don’t grow a second crop and often they will plant rice in late summer.
They mostly sell to boiling operations in their area, although they have sold to Baton Rouge and New Roads restaurants.
The 1,100 acres of crawfish ponds are within the Morganza Spillway, so they have to accept that those fields are susceptible to flooding, if the floodgates are opened at Morganza to relieve pressure on the Mississippi River. The last time that happened was in 2011, but five times since then the Mississippi River water level has almost gotten high enough to require opening the gates.
“In 2011, this went under 10 or 11 feet of water,” Marty said while driving through a checkerboard of crawfish ponds.
He was worried that the high water this year would require using the spillway again. It was only inches from reaching that critical level, he said.
The brothers have another 1,500 acre farm, up the Mississippi River, called Blackhawk, and flooding is often a concern. "The last of April, it still had 300 acres underwater," Marty said.
Crawfish provides a spring crop, but unlike crawfish operations to the south, the Freys’ crawfish don’t get to a marketable size until mid-February at the earliest. “We’ll fish until Memorial Day or first week in June,” Marty said.
Then the presprouted rice will be flown onto the already flooded fields.
Marty said Neally sprangletop is their biggest weed problem. “We use a lot of Command to try to stay ahead of it.”
Dr. Eric Webster, LSU AgCenter weed scientist, says the weed Neally 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.
They have been experimenting with row rice for the past 5 years, and this year they have a 50-acre field of it. The practice involves using poly pipe to irrigate enough to keep the ground wet, but not continuously flood, so no levees are required. The idea is to save on the costs of pumping and setting up levees. Hybrid rice is preferred because of its disease resistance, and the field is drill-seeded.
They have used a computer program to determine the number, size and spacing of holes to punch in the poly pipe to get an even distribution of water across the field.
One year, they grew a field of row rice that RiceTec used to produce hybrid seed. Wind created by the down draft of a helicopter was used to pollinate male-sterile rows with pollen from adjacent plants.
The Freys’ rice is trucked to the Bunge elevator near Simmesport where it’s graded and loaded onto barges. They have a crew of migrant workers to work all the crops. “We’ve got some that have been with us for 20 years,” Marty said.
That longevity pays off by having workers who know how to carry out all the work without lots of supervision, he said.
One man has his three sons working with him, and most of the crew is related, Marty said.
Wild pigs are a major problem. “They’re worst in the rice when it’s flowering or when you drain the fields,” Marty said.
He said it’s not uncommon for pigs to destroy a half acre by trampling or rooting up the plants. And they damage cane fields too. “They’ll find the sweetest cane and cut it down.”
Traps worked for a while, but they became ineffective after the hogs figured out the consequences of entering a trap.
“We’ve got a guy who comes in and hunts them at night,” Marty said.
Last year, the hunter shot more than 400 pigs, often eliminating 20 a night but that number dropped to 2 or 3, according to Marty. But one night in April, he shot 23 hogs and a coyote.
Bears are often seen in the area, but they don’t cause much of crop problem, Marty said.
In 1999 the farm started a transition from cotton to sugarcane. In all, they have 3,600 acres of sugarcane. They also no longer grow corn or wheat, and cane has taken over that land also.
All their cane is hauled to Cora Texas mill in White Castle.
Marty said they are finding that 8-foot rows are better for their operation than 6-foot rows because of improved efficiency.
For sugarcane, Clean Tech seed is used, and they also grow seed for Clean Tech.
Most of their cane is hand-planted, but they have one billet planter with plans to get another one. Marty said there is some evidence that billet planting increases yield.
They still have a soldier harvester for seed to be hand planted.
Last year’s tonnage was good, at 41 tons per acre, but the sugar declined from the 2017 crop. “It was an expensive harvest because of the rain,” Marty said.
A dozer was required to keep the equipment out of the mud. “It pretty much ran all season.”
The early freeze in November stunted the crop’s growth, and limited the amount of sugar, he said. “Fortunately, we didn’t leave any of the crop in the field.”
Twin-row soybeans have been planted on 8-foot cane rows. Marty said he is trying the practice to see what advantages it has. “Last year, I didn’t see a difference in yield, but I do see a difference in stand.”
They will have 2,500 acres of beans this year and much of that will get replanted in cane after soybeans are harvested.
Marty has completed the Louisiana Master Farmer Program, and Matt has been through the Louisiana Master Cattleman Program twice. “It was way better than I could imagine.” He credited Vince Deshotel, LSU AgCenter regional livestock agent, for organizing a well-run program with experts in nutrition, health, genetics and pasture weed control. “Vince wants that program to be taken seriously. He wants people to learn.”
Matt said he was so impressed with the program that he took it a second time, bringing his daughter, Taylor.
The Frey farming effort began with Matt and Marty’s father, Frederick Joseph Frey, originally from the Mowata community of Acadia Parish. He moved to Lake Providence, Simmesport to work on farms owned by a large landowner, eventually settling in Morganza in the late 1960s to manage another farm.
When the large landowner put up 700 acres of land in Morganza for sale, Frederick and Edwin Leonards of Crowley, who married Frederick’s sister, bought that property and formed F&L Planters. Frederick, who died last year, eventually retired and turned over Four Oaks Farm to his four sons.
Today the operation is yet going through another transition, where Marty and Matt has recently bought out Mitch and Mark where they are branching out with their own enterprises.
Marty said the small farm owned by their father and uncle shows what persistence and hard work can build. “It got us all where we are right now.”