Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
Phillip Cavins can trace his interest to growing plants in a greenhouse to a tour of Disney’s Epcot Theme Park about 10 years ago.
“That’s what really got me interested in greenhouse production,”
As a freshman in high school, he started designing his first greenhouse. Those plans would have to wait a few years but in the meantime, Phillip had a garden and he sold much of what he grew.
Phillip had worked hard, buying a house and fixing it up, then reselling it with the profit used to buy the high-tunnel greenhouse to start his business, Prairie Culture Farms almost 2 years ago.
The pandemic helped business, he said, apparently because people wanted to start eating healthier.
“Our sales went up by 30%.”
The operation was off to a good start, with 5 stores and 2 restaurants as regular customers. “The greenhouse was at 80% capacity.”
Phillip said he regularly sold out of tomatoes weekly. Even after the storm, he said, the mangled and twisted tomato plants were producing a crop.
He sold to Teet’s Grocery in Ville Platte, now in a new, much larger building on the west side of town.
“They were our biggest buyer by far.”
The gourmet restaurant, Café Evangeline, in downtown Ville Platte, relied on Phillip’s produce.
Then came Hurricane Laura.
Unfortunately, he said, insurance only covered about a fourth of the loss. “It was depressing pulling up to see something I’d worked on for 2 years just destroyed.
The high-tunnel structure was demolished by the wind. “That’s in a landfill now.”
So up until the storm, business was good, but that changed with the wind.
But Phillip is in the early stages of rebuilding.
He had actually bought the new-to-him greenhouse a year ago from a family going out of the business. “The plan was to expand here but when the hurricane came, that was the sign to put the new greenhouse up. The hurricane kind of sped that up.”
The previous structure was 20 feet by 115 feet. The new one will be 63 feet by 100 feet. But the new operation will be much better with high-tech features that he hopes will reduce energy costs.
An evaporative cooling system will chill irrigation water that will be loaded with nutrients for the plants.
A computer will control water pH and temperature, and regulate the amount of fertilizer. The water will be distributed to the plants in a nutrient film technology. He explained that the plants will sit in a tray that will channel a thin layer of water across the bottom for the plants to absorb. To give the plants a growth boost, LED lighting will be used at night and on cloudy days.
He plans to run the system with solar power to help reduce the $500 electric bill.
The old greenhouse system used 8,000 gallons of water but he estimates the new system will only need 600. A 110-foot deep well drilled on the property delivers 20 gallons a minute.
A ventilation system will circulate the air 2.5 times a minute. “With our heat, you have to have overkill.”
He will be able to grow lettuce in the hottest months because of a water chilling system. Phillip explained that it’s the roots that need to be kept cool, not the lettuce leafs. “It’s really the root zone that determines whether it’s going to bolt or not.”
This greenhouse will be completely sealed against bugs. Concrete footings along sides will form a length-wise barrier, and the ends will be enclosed also.
On one side of the new greenhouse will be set aside for leafy greens, like lettuce, bok choy, green onions, parsley, basil, Swiss chard and broccoli. “We might piddle with some cabbage.”
The other side will be for warm season vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and slicing cucumbers.
He has several marketing ideas, including selling his vegetables at the farmers markets in Alexandria and Lafayette, as well as using a delivery service to subscribers for his produce and the use of an app, called Farmigo that connects growers with buyers.
Phillip has his infrastructure planned out.
He has more plans for the 20-acre tract located east of Pine Prairie, with a pumpkin patch and a Christmas tree farm.
He tried industrial hemp farming this year. The results weren’t so good.
“It was about a $10,000 experiment.”
He bought 1,500 seeds from a Colorado company. “The state had to approve the seeds before we could purchase them.”
He grew three varieties in five 300-foot rows. But the ones that did well tested too high for THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana. Under state law, if a hemp plant has more than .3% THC, the plant cannot be sold and it must be destroyed.
“We had to have a representative for Dr. Mike Strain (secretary of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry) watch us Bush Hog it.”
The plants that had a legal THC level didn’t grow well, he said, because of disease. “The Southern blight was so bad that maybe 3 out of 100 survived.”
He is thinking that the summer heat probably boosted the THC level in the plants that thrived. So he’s going to try hemp again this year, but he’ll plant the crop in May instead of June to get ahead of the peak summer heat.
He said a nearby farmer grew 112 acres of hemp but only about half the crop was marketable.
He said hemp has not turned out to be the savior of Louisiana agriculture. “I’ve been hearing mixed reviews for it.”
If the greenhouse operation and tree business isn’t enough to keep him busy, Phillip is buying a tree-cutting and stump grinding business that has been doing well because of the storm, and he’s been working with the company recently to learn the ropes. “After Laura, we were working 16 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
The company had a contract with a utility to remove trees from power lines. Now, the company is preparing to go to Oklahoma to cut trees downed by an ice storm.
And he has another gig: mayor of Turkey Creek.
He didn’t intend to become mayor. He originally intended to run for a seat on the Turkey Creek Town Council. “When I got there, they informed me nobody qualified for mayor.”
He thought about it for a minute, and decided he would throw his hat in the ring for mayor, and no one else filed.
At the age of 23, he became the youngest mayor in Louisiana.
He said one of his biggest accomplishments has been hiring a new police chief, Shawn Eckhart. “He is doing a phenomenal job keeping the drugs out of our community. He has the experience and a lot of leadership skills.”
Phillip said like many other small, rural towns, Turkey Creek has had its share of the methamphetamine scourge among its population of 460 people.
The new chief has obtained vehicles and equipment that the department needed, Phillip said. But best of all, he said, the department now has 10 officers.
So does this mean Turkey Creek has become more aggressive at enforcing speed limits?
“Some people would say that, yeah,” Phillip said with a grin.
But he said he wants to educate the public on driving safety. As the judge in mayor’s court, Phillip said he’s willing to give folks a break. “I’m not here to rake in all this money from people.”
He said the town’s water department not has a computerized system that allows customers to see how much water they’re using. “Somebody can tell if they flush a toilet at 2 in the morning.”
An automatic flushing system for the entire water department is keeping the water lines clear of stagnant water, he said, as the result of a grant to pay for it.
Phillip’s father-in-law, Quint West, is mayor of Pine Prairie, and he said that was one reason he decided to run for mayor. “I was able to see how much he was able to help his community.”
West was reelected unopposed in October for his second term.
Phillip said he and West are able to work together on issues affecting northern Evangeline Parish.
So between rebuilding the greenhouse operation, growing hemp, acquiring a tree business, and running the Town of Turkey Creek, Phillip is a busy man. But he said that’s just the way he likes it.
“I don’t like to stay idle and I don’t like being indoors. If I had to stay at a desk all day, I’d probably need medication. I really enjoy working manual labor. Pretty much everything, except painting.”
His wife, Lynee, is studying at Louisiana College to become a nurse.
Phillip said he doesn’t work on Sundays. “Sunday is for church and lunch with the family.”
He said he wants to foster a good working environment for his employees.
“We try to encourage a good Christian work environment.”