Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
YOUNGSVILLE -- It all started 12 years ago with three goats after the Cazayoux’s daughter, Aubrie, wanted to show animals for a 4-H project as a high school sophomore.
“When we started, we didn’t know diddly-squat,” Renee recalled. “It started out as a project and turned into a passion.”
Neither she nor husband Kurt had livestock experience. They went all the way to Oklahoma City to buy their first three animals, Nigerian Dwarf Goats, bringing them home in a dog kennel loaded into their car. “Every 2 hours I had to stop and get another air freshener,” Kurt recalled.
Because Kurt is fond of the Little Rascals TV show, they named their enterprise Our Gang Goats. Their first goats they got from Oklahoma were named Buckwheat, Darla and Alfalfa. (You can find them on Facebook under “Our Gang Goats.”)
Now, their herd is somewhere around 50 head, and they expect to have more than 40 kids in the next few months.
Nigerian Dwarf Goats are bred for their milk production.
In the beginning of their goat experience, the Cazayoux goats competed against meat breeds, and one of the Cazayouxs’ little Nigerians won first overall. “That was the first milk goat to beat a meat goat,” Renee said. Now separate categories have been established for the different breeds.
And it was because of goats that Aubrie met her husband, Sage Edelkind, a forage researcher at the LSU AgCenter Central Station. They met when they were both showing goats, although he was competing in the meat goat category.
“So goats have changed our lives,” Kurt said.
After Aubrie’s show career, Zoe started competing and she has a cabinet full of belt buckles to prove her victories in the show ring. She’s also had success showing cows and horses, and she’s now raising the parish animal, a hog that will be sold to raise money for the Lafayette Parish 4-H program.
“Her goal was to show every species before her final year, and this pig is her last one,” Renee said.
Renee is in awe of her daughter’s abilities in the show ring. “She can take a third-place goat and turn it into a winner.”
Renee credits the faculty at the David Thibodaux Magnet School, particularly 4-H sponsor Arlene Thibodeaux, for providing the support to Zoe’s efforts.
Thibodeaux said Zoe has poise and confidence. “I think she’s learned that from the competition. She likes competition and she is very committed to her goats. She likes taking care of them, and every aspect of the goats.”
Zoe has a simple explanation for her love of working with goats. “Because it’s fun. It’s really fun.”
For Kurt, the experience of working with his daughters and their animals has had a profound effect on his life. “My relationship with my daughters would not be what it is today without this.”
Occasionally, they take the young goats to nursing homes and schools. “We’ve found the goats relate well to autistic children,” Renee said.
Alfalfa, expensive in Louisiana, is a prime food for goats. So is hay from peanut plants.
They have a special feed made at the Atlas Feed Mill in Breaux Bridge that’s high in protein. A cobalt block provides mineral supplements. “If they need a mineral and you have that mineral out, they’ll eat it on their own.”
These goats are raised for shows and milk, but some people buy them just for pets. Renee names all the animals, usually based on their parents’ names. For example, Oops was named after its mother, Uh-oh.
Above all the goats are not raised for meat. “If I meet it, I don’t eat it,” she said.
Nigerians are about half the size of most regular size goats, and that means they don’t need as much space.
The Cazayouxs some of their herd’s offspring. Some are sold for show animals, but many are sold just as pets. Kurt said one buyer now takes his goat with him where ever he goes, just like a dog.
“Since COVID, the demand for dairy goats over the last year has skyrocketed,” Kurt said. “I’ve never seen so many people looking for dairy goats.”
A group or herd of goats is called a “trip.” And they are a trip to watch. They’re curious and sometimes just silly, jumping up in the air, running and kicking up their hooves for no reason.
Their goats can be affectionate, curious and ornery enough to make them interesting to watch. “The one thing I pride myself on is disposition,” Kurt said.
But they thrive in a group, and stay together. The worst thing is a lone goat, the Cazayouxs say.
They have a friend who sometimes drops by just to watch the goats’ antics.
A pair of Great Pyrenees dogs protects the herd.
In addition to the goats, they also have chickens left over from a 4-H project, along with three horses. Zoe won the Junior Master Horseman Premier Exhibitor with one of three horses in the menagerie. Now, she’s raising a pig that will be the Lafayette Parish 4-H animal that will be sold as a 4-H fundraiser.
Goats tend to challenge each other for leadership of their groups. Occasionally butting heads and pushing each other around. “They refigure it out every day,” Kurt said.
They are keeping a herd for a woman from the Lake Charles area whose house and barn were destroyed by Hurricane Laura, but she has almost finished rebuilding and the displaced herd will be returning home soon.
They have one non-Nigerian goat. An Alpine named Vivian that Zoe won from a fellow competitor who told her if she was able to show the doe and win grand champion, she could have it. Zoe recalls the original owner was having trouble with Vivian that day and out of frustration he let her show the animal. “She was working perfectly fine for me.”
But 4-H shows were just the start. “It’s gone way beyond that.” Since then, they have competed successfully in countless shows across the south, including the grand-daddy of them all, the Houston Livestock Show.
Two big shows are held in Louisiana annual. The Cajun Classic in Crowley drew 600 competitors last year, with some as far away as Dade County, Fla. The Bayou Classic is held in the fall in Ruston.
Not only did Zoe and Vivian win that championship, they also took Best in Show.
Now Zoe is determined to win the national showmanship competition this year with a doe named myth, daughter of Saga. She explained the showmanship category requires a handler to be well-versed in everything about goats, and judges will quiz competitors extensively on their animals and on the goat industry.
Dairy goats of course mean milk, and after the kids are weaned the females can continue to produce about a half gallon a day each. “We had so much milk, we had to figure out something to do with it,” Renee said.
The milk is easily digestible, and the chemical makeup is close to human milk, Renee said.
They use the milk to make soap and lotions that are sold in boutique stores like Pieces of Eight in Lafayette.
“We make our soaps with 100% goat milk,” Kurt said.
But they can’t sell raw, or unpasteurized, milk because of Louisiana law. Several attempts in the legislature to change that have been unsuccessful. Kurt notes that raw milk can’t be sold because of the argument that consumers could become sick, yet it’s legal to sell raw oysters resulting in several deaths a year.
They make chevre and feta cheese, but they can’t sell it because they use raw milk. They have a small pasteurizer but it doesn’t have the capacity to handle all of their capacity.
They freeze milk and colostrum, and sometimes they get a call from a vet who needs the nutrient-rich liquid for orphaned newborn animals.
The Cazayouxs send milk samples to the American Dairy Goat Association for nutritional analyses.
“Nigerians are known for the highest butter fat of all dairy goats. Anywhere from 6 to 9%,” Kurt said.
“Milk from a Nigerian is the richest, sweetest milk you’ll ever taste,” Renee said, explaining it tastes similar to milk that’s been poured over sweet breakfast cereal.
LSU AgCenter livestock specialist Rodney Johnson, who helps coordinate the Louisiana Master Goat Producer Program, said participants represent both goat producers and 4-H members who show goats.
“There is a market for goat products,” Johnson said. “Goat milk is very digestible and is an option for people sensitive to milk from a cow. There’s also a big demand for soap made from goat’s milk.”
Johnson said people who suffer from skin problems such as eczema have told him soap with goat milk as an ingredient provided them some relief.
Johnson said Kurt volunteers his time as an officer to the Louisiana Meat Goat Association and promotes the benefits of showing La Bred goats in 4-H Livestock shows. He also said Kurt has been eager to help with all three of the Master Goat Producer Program classes.
“Kurt is definitely an asset to the LSU AgCenter as a volunteer,” Johnson said. “He shares his knowledge of the dairy goat industry mainly educating producers on options of marketing raw goat milk and the laws that pertain to the use of raw milk.”
Johnson said Kurt demonstrates the soap-making process using goat milk. “His knowledge and demonstration have offered dairy goat producers with an alternative income for their goat operation.”
Another class of the Master Goat Producer Program will be held this spring. Participants are required to attend three daylong classes related to raising and caring for goats. Topics included goat breeds and selection, equipment, fencing, nutrition, and marketing goats and goat products.
The next class will be held March 13, April 10 and April 17, 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., at the Tangipahoa Parish LSU AgCenter Extension Office, 305 E. Oak St., Amite. The cost is $125, and attendance is required for all three sessions to be certified.
Registration deadline is Feb. 24. The application form is available by email from Johnson at Rjohnson@agcenter.lsu.edu and the form with payment can be mailed to LSU AgCenter, Rapides Parish Extension Office, care of Rodney Johnson, 300 Grady Britt Drive, Alexandria, 71302.
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
Howard Cormier is retiring from the LSU AgCenter Master Horseman Program, but he is not hanging up his saddle and spurs.
“I’m trying to wind things down,” Howard said. “I’ve enjoyed this job but it’s time to give someone else a chance.”
His retirement is official Jan. 1.
It’s the second retirement for Cormier. The first was in 2008 when he was county agent in Vermilion Parish. “A month later, I started working with the Master Horseman Program.”
He recalled the Master Horseman Program was the idea of Clint DePew, retired LSU AgCenter equine specialist.
The first class had six people, he said, and two of those individuals – Richard Hebert and Mike Dartez -- became 4-H Horsemanship Leader of the Year. “They have done a tremendous amount of work.”
Howard said retirement will allow him to spend more time with his four grandchildren, three boys and a girl.
He said even though he’s been around horses for most of his 72 years, he still learns about the four-legged beasts. “With horses, you never reach a point where you know it all. There’s always a new approach to horse training.”
Howard said when he started working with the Master Horseman Program, he had to learn how to teach, and he had to relearn a better way to train a horse.
He grew up around Church Point where he learned about horses from his father and relatives.
Back in those days, he said, training a horse was usually done with a whip, forcing a horse to comply.
“The thing to do then was show it who was boss. It was pretty rough.”
At that time, it was important to get an animal ready to work on the farm quickly and owners didn’t have time to patiently work with an animal, he said. He recalled his grandfather would take a young mule and hitch it with a team of older, stronger mules to work the fields. The younger animal would resist and fight through the day but by the end of the day it was worn out and willing to obey.
Howard recalled a horse trainer once came to the Church Point area and claimed to have a special ability to communicate with horses. A horse whisperer long before that phrase came about. He charged $25 a head to watch his demonstration.
Howard said his dad told him the man actually walked up to a horse and appeared to be talking softly to it, but Howard’s dad surmised he was telling the horse, “Give me a fight but don’t give me too much of a fight because these fools have paid $25 a head to see this.”
Nowadays, the emphasis is on persuading a horse to obey more subtle commands. Howard explained the principle of getting a horse to do what you want comes down to pressure and release. Apply pressure with a spur or a leg against a horse’s flank, then release it as the horse complies.
Howard said spurs are used more to move a horse side to side, not to make it go faster. “If spurs were effective at making a horse go faster, jockeys would wear them.”
Horses are aware of a rider’s posture, he said. Sit on a horse like a sack of potatoes and the horse is likely to react similarly, but with correct upright posture and confident moves, a horse is more likely to perform well.
“The horse always rises or falls to the level of the rider,” Howard said.
He explained that training a horse these days start with ground work. The saddled horse isn’t ridden. Instead, the trainer stays on the ground and uses a rope along with subtle cues to make the horse move. With just raising a hand or his head up or to a side, Cormier can make a trained horse advance, move back, sideways or stop.
Horse trainer Warwick Schiller emphasizes making a connection with a horse, Howard said. “A horse can get to the point where it wants to be around someone.”
He said horses often connect with kids quicker because they are not identified as a threat. Howard said he has sent his grandkids to fetch a horse that would shy from him.
Attempting to figure out what goes on in a horse’s mind has been a lifelong pursuit for Howard. “The world of horses is fascinating. Trying to read horses and understand why they do what they do, that’s my goal. You’re always trying to get better.”
Howard said much of the modern-day horse training philosophy can be traced back to Ray Hunt of Utah. “He started a revolution in horsemanship.”
Howard said Hunt’s mantra was simple. “Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult but not unbearable. You try not to be so overbearing that the horse becomes fearful.”
A scared horse resorts to its fight-or-flight instinct and that makes it almost impossible to control, he explained.
Howard said he raised his first horse, Blaze, a palomino stallion, as a colt. Then he bought another horse in 1971 at an auction for $145 with a saddle.
He said he owned a horse that he wanted to sell, and he relied on his brother to show it to a prospective buyer. The woman didn’t seem impressed with the horse until Howard’s brother showed her the horse’s unique talent: chewing gum.
Howard’s brother gave the horse a slice, and the horse chomped away and the sale was made.
He recalled another horse had a bad habit of bucking, and it threw him three times, prompting a friend to ask how many throws would it take to convince him to sell that horse. Howard said he realized the friend was right and he sold the horse for $450 to someone who liked showing off a bucking horse.
Howard’s main horse now is Ruthie, a buckskin mare. Its official American Quarter Horse Association name is “Woohoo Check My Bootie,” Howard said. The AQHA’s initial rejection of the name was successfully appealed, Howard said, but he decided to call it Ruthie after his mother because of its gentle nature. “But if you pushed her too far, she stood her ground.”
He’s had his share of mishaps. Howard said he just finished physical therapy for a shoulder injury that occurred when he roped a calf and the rope got tangled in his horse’s feet. “Few horses can stand a rope running under their tail with a 200-pound calf on the other end.”
Howard said he’s still ever mindful of the danger of falling. “You never get to a point where you don’t worry about getting thrown.”
Howard has enjoyed competing in ranch skills events, even winning first place two years that require a rider to put a horse through maneuvers with practical applications.
But Howard said he mostly enjoys more sedate trail riding through the woods of the Kisatchie National Forest. His favorite area is the Kisatchie Hills Wilderness Area near Natchitoches. “You go to enjoy the scenery and make sure the pace is not too challenging for the horses.”
His most memorable ride was a 9-day excursion along the Continental Divide near Durango, Colorado, with an outfitter and a group of friends. They traversed the mountains, carrying all their supplies and equipment on horseback. “That was my dream trip.”
He also rode with friends on mules into the Grand Canyon. Howard remembers he tried to coax his mule to stay away from the edge of the narrow path but the mule reacted by getting closer to the edge with a sheer dropoff of several hundred feet.
“It didn’t take but a minute for that mule to train me.”
Howard graduated from the University of Southwestern Louisiana in animal science in 1971. Between semesters, he worked in the oilfield as a roughneck alongside his dad, who everyone knew as Slim. “Whenever everyone else went off on vacation, I was on the rig.”
Howard credits that oilfield experience with his skill for knot tying that proved valuable with horsemanship. Howard has several knot-tying videos on YouTube, along with horse training instruction.
He started working for the LSU AgCenter in 1972 as a 4-H agent in Lafourche Parish after a year at seminary in New Orleans.
In 1978, he moved to the Vermilion Parish office to do 4-H and horticulture work, then he became a county agent working with rice and sugarcane farmers.
He used a newsletter, La Grappe, (French for The Seedhead), to communicate with his constituents and eagerly wrote recommendations to honor some of the outstanding area farmers with national awards. “Vermilion won more awards with its farmers than any other parish in the state.”
Rice and crawfish farmer David LaCour said Howard as county agent was always available for technical and moral support. “I think he was the best county agent ever.
He was on top of everything. He was with me every week checking on fields.”
LaCour said Howard taught farmers new technology as the computer age hit the fields, and ag organizations in the parish flourished under his guidance.
But Howard decided he would retire at age 60, just like his dad.
His time with the Master Horseman Program didn’t seem so much like work, since horses are his passion.
Horse trainer and cattleman Johnny Boudreaux of Vermilion Parish said Howard has been a major factor in the Master Horseman Program’s success in the area.
“He’s been a driving force. I’m really hoping they find someone to replace him on his level, but it’s going to be very difficult.”
Boudreaux said Howard’s teaching ability has inspired horse owner to improve. “He pushes everybody to excel.”
Howard has worked a 13-parish area but sometimes traveled to north Louisiana to conduct classes. Even now, he expects he will occasionally teach a class or two for the Master Horseman Program.
Dr. Neely Walker, LSU AgCenter equine specialist, said Howard invested his personal time to become a better instructor, and he expanded the Master Horseman Program with an advanced level, Master Horseman Wrangler.
“He has been the face of the Master Horseman Program,” she said. “He was the person who people looked to for instruction and guidance. That’s all he focused on and he put a lot of love and time into it.”
She said Howard has been important in her career too. “He’s been very influential to me in my career. I feel like we’re losing a lot of institutional knowledge.”
She said some figures in the equine industry have expressed concern that Master Horseman will cease with Howard’s retirement, but she said efforts are underway to continue the program.
And she said it’s likely that Howard will return to teach a class for the Master Horseman Program occasionally.
Howard said he’ll probably teach a class or two sometimes, and he has no intention of hanging up his hat and spurs soon.
“I’m hoping I can ride until I’m 90 or 95, then I’ll start slowing down.”
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.”
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.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
MOWATA - This is what it all comes down to for rice farmers. After all the long days of applying chemicals and fertilizer, enduring bad weather, worry, paperwork, mechanical breakdowns and other frustrations, it’s time for harvest.
And unlike last year’s dismal harvest, reports are good from most farmers.
That’s the case for R&Z Farms in northern Acadia Parish.
The ‘R’ in R&Z Farms is for Keith Rockett and the ‘Z’ is for Doug and Dwayne Zaunbrecher. Also working on the farm are Keith’s son, Jonathan, and Dwayne’s sons, Nicholas and Michael.
Their first field cut an impressive 57 barrels an acre on July 31. The 42-acre field was one of five in the LSU AgCenter’s Verification Program. It was water-planted on March 13 with RiceTec hybrid FullPage 7321 at a seeding rate of 25 pounds per acre.
“It’s amazing how that rice tillers,” Jonathan said. “Of the 1,400 acres we have in rice, about 800 acres was planted with hybrids. We especially like it for our weaker ground.”
Doug said they have been buying chicken litter from the DeRidder area, and it seems to have boosted rice yields. He said some crawfish producers are convinced it increases their catch too.
They don’t second-crop any of their rice, preferring to go from first-crop harvest to crawfish production.
Most of the fields in R&Z Farms are within a 5-mile radius of the original farm where Keith and Jonathan live, although they have one farm north of U.S. Highway 190.
Their biggest weed problem is nutsedge, and it’s controlled with Permit or Permit Plus.
Jonathan said the all their seed was treated with Dermacor, so they didn’t have much of an insect problem. Disease pressure was light also this year.
It’s a totally different year disease-wise compared to 2019, Jonathan said. Last year, smut disease permeated the fields throughout the southern part of the state, but strangely it hasn’t been much of a problem this year.
Dwayne said just in case, all their rice is sprayed with fungicides. “Ten years ago, we didn’t think that had to be done but one year we learned differently.”
The LSU AgCenter has had test plots at the R&Z Farms since the year 2000.
Dr. Steve Linscombe, retired LSU AgCenter rice breeder, remembers when he first started his off-station research with the Rocketts and Zaunbrechers.
“The Rice Breeding Project planted the first off-station research location on R&Z Farms in 2001 so this year makes the 20th consecutive year that research has been conducted there.”
Since Linscombe’s retirement, Dr. Adam Famoso, LSU AgCenter rice breeder, has continued using the R&Z Farms.
Linscombe said the research location has been extremely beneficial to variety development efforts.
“Even though this location is only a few miles from the Rice Research Station, it provides a very different environment for evaluating experimental lines as potential new varieties. The soil type and disease spectrum are different. This makes this location an excellent source of data on yield potential, yield stability, grain quality and disease resistance which is precisely what is needed in making variety release decisions.”
Keith said he likes having the plots on the farm. “We think it’s good, and I don’t feel guilty calling the LSU AgCenter for advice.”
Jonathan said he values the LSU AgCenter’s expertise with County Agent Jeremy Hebert and Keith Fontenot with the LSU AgCenter Rice Verification Program because he knows the recommendations are not based on selling a product.
As it turns out, Jonathan and Jeremy attended McNeese at the same time, although they didn’t know each other then.
Jonathan said he looks forward to Jeremy’s consultations. “Half the time we talk about the rice, and half the time we talk about the garden.”
Jonathan and his wife, Candace, have a vegetable garden and they get help with sons Jaxson and Jude, ages 10 and 6, and daughter Juliana, age 4. They grow tomatoes, eggplant, squash, bell peppers and cucumbers to make 100 quarts of dill pickles every year.
Jonathan’s sister, Hannah, teaches at a small college in Washington near Seattle and a brother, Damian, is an engineer in Houston.
Jonathan’s father, Keith, grew up in Rayville on a cotton and soybean farm. He graduated from Louisiana Tech with a degree in animal husbandry, then went to work in the oilpatch with a well testing company. In the late 1970s, he married Gloria Casselmann from Acadia Parish whose father, Ludwig Casselmann, was a rice and cattle farmer.
Keith eventually decided to make a career change and start farming. He relied on his father-in-law to teach him how to grow a rice crop. “I knew nothing about rice, but I couldn’t have had a better teacher.”
Ludwig, who died in 1990 when Jonathan was 10, made a lasting impression on his grandsons and Keith.
As a boy, Jonathan learned to speak German from his mother. Doug said their grandfather insisted they learn German as soon as they could talk. “He would speak to us in German, and you had to learn it.”
And he said his mother, Hannah, also spoke to them in German.
Doug said Ludwig also taught himself to speak French so he could talk with his Cajun neighbors, many of whom could not speak English. “He knew enough to carry on a little conversation.”
Dwayne said he went with the family to Germany in the 1990s, and they met some of Ludwig’s relatives from the Kassel, Germany, area. “We actually stayed with his cousins. They told me ‘I can still hear the Kassel dialect in your German.’ ”
Dwayne said as a boy, he wasn’t sure what he would do for a living. He went to LSU-E for a couple years, but he started working with his grandfather in 1984. In addition to raising rice and cattle, they baled wheat straw to sell for use at racehorse tracks and on highway construction.
Dwayne’s sons work the grain bins and help with whatever comes up on the farm. He said he encouraged his oldest son, Michael, to go into engineering but he insisted on becoming a farmer. Michael did earn a master’s degree in business administration. Nicholas is nearing graduation from McNeese in ag business.
Dwayne and his wife, June, also have a daughter, Kathryn, who’s getting her master’s degree in business administration at Louisiana Tech.
Doug started with the farm in 1990. He and his wife, Marla, have a son, Hans, who’s a sophomore at Louisiana Tech majoring in construction management, and a daughter, Anya, a high school junior. Doug’s wife is a teacher in Iota.
Doug attended trade school for diesel mechanics, so his abilities are a good fit on the farm. He’s in charge of the operation’s trucking divison.
“Things have really changed a lot,” Doug said.
He recalls learning to drive a tractor without a cab, and he distinctly remembers being put to work by their grandfather in a field with Dwayne. “I think it took us all day to plow that 20-acre field with a 10-foot plow and a 12-foot plow.”
Doug said Ludwig would save chores for the weekend for him and Dwayne, and that included mixing feed, grown on the farm, for the milk cow. “We always had little projects. We definitely give him all the credit for being taught how to work at a young age.”
“I remember pulling red rice when I couldn’t see over the tops of the rice,” Dwayne said, recalling a memory as a 5-year-old boy. “He would get mad at me because I’d step on his heels because I didn’t want to get lost.”
He said his grandfather’s experience of dealing with the Depression had a lasting influence. “He taught me if I wanted something, I had to go out and get it.”
Dwayne said after Ludwig died, numerous cans of old nails were thrown away.
“When we tore down a barn, we pulled every nail and straightened it because we might need it if we built another barn.”
Doug remembers that too. “He’s 100% right on that. There might still be some old nails in the warehouse if you dig deep enough.”
Dwayne also remembers when someone would bring up the possibility of growing a different crop, his grandfather would tell him, “This is rice and cattle country.”
In those days, it was common to rotate cattle and rice on a field but now, he said, crawfish has replaced cattle.
The pandemic resulted in many crawfish producers losing customers this year when restaurants closed, but Dwayne said R&Z Farms maintained most of their business. They have a buyer who sells to customers on the East and West coasts, he said, and they supply restaurants, including many in north Louisiana from Shreveport to Rayville.
Dwayne said their catch was good, but prices fell early and didn’t rebound.
He said after a month, he realized it was necessary to catch crawfish early in the weekend to be able to meet a heavy weekend demand. ““It was crazy this year. We sold more crawfish the week after Easter than the week of Easter.”
This year, their crawfish boats were switched from cleated wheels to cage wheels. A neighbor, Patrick Bellard, fabricated the wheels that resemble squirrel cages, and don’t have the lugged cleats that dig into the soil. Instead of the deep ruts, the wheels leave shallower cuts in the field that can be repaired easily.
“You still get tracks, but they’re not busting through the clay pan,” Dwayne explained. “It’s much better than it was in previous years.”
He said the new wheels lose some traction, but there are ways to compensate for
that problem. Dwayne said a neighbor has been using the new wheel design for a couple years, and he notices a big improvement in the field conditions.
County Agent Jeremy Harper said the R&Z Farms’ is constantly working to improve. “They’re always interested in the latest and greatest, and they’re very progressive farmers.”
He said he’s worked with them on several projects. “They are a great, great family, and great farmers.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
DIDO – It’s a bright, warm summer morning in a field not far from this Vernon Parish community between Elizabeth and Pitkin.
A line of teenage boys tromp through the field, hefting 20-pound watermelons to each other in bucket brigade fashion until the melons are stacked in a trailer. Soon, you might see these emerald orbs sold out of a pickup on the side of a highway.
This crop is grown by Jason Green, one of several melon producers in the area of Beauregard, Vernon and Allen parishes. He has melon patches scattered around the Pitkin-Sugartown area. His largest field this year is 35 acres, and he needs a crew of 12-14 young men for harvest.
The drought and unseasonably cool weather in April and May this year has limited production so some fields will only get picked 4-5 times. “In a good year, you should be able to pull this field seven times.”
Jason wants night-time temperatures above 70 degrees. “Watermelons grow the most at night, and in the day is when they ripen.”
He said most groceries around here get their melons from south Texas where they are grown with drip irrigation, and they are picked before ripeness. “If you buy at a grocery store, chances are it’s not a high-quality melon.”
He refuses to irrigate, believing any moisture besides rain results in an inferior melon. “To keep the quality, I have to take whatever Mother Nature gives me.”
He was hoping that Tropical Storm Cristobal would have dropped a couple inches of rain on his fields but that didn’t happen.
He also doesn’t use pesticides because he said he doesn’t have much of an insect or disease problem, but he does use commercial fertilizer at planting.
Pigs, crows and racoons that eat the melons are a problem, he said.
Keith Hawkins, LSU AgCenter county agent in Beauregard Parish, said a grower was dealing with deer feeding on the melons, and the grower solved the problem by using lion manure, obtained from the Alexandria Zoo, as a repellent.
Hawkins said watermelons prefer sandy soil that drains well. “Heavy soil wouldn’t be good for watermelons.”
Jason said the area’s sandy soil with a pH close to neutral contributes to the quality of his product too.
Green rents his fields, and he only uses a field once every 7 years to allow the ground to replenish nutrients. “A watermelon takes more out of the ground than any other crop.”
Black plastic sheeting is used on the raised beds to hold moisture in the sandy soil, and to reduce growth of grasses.
He uses a few varieties. “I have a couple but I keep them to myself because of competition.” He will reveal that he relies on an old standy-by variety, Royal Sweet.
Most grocery store watermelons are good for several weeks, he said.
His watermelons start as seedlings grown in a greenhouse, then transplanted between March 25 and April 12. A late frost could set back planting., and he watches pecan trees for the green buds that tell him winter is gone.
His fields are planted at different times so he’ll have a good supply for much of the summer, and he saved a big field to supply the July 4 holiday demand.
Just as he expected, business for this year’s Independence Day was hectic but good. “It was crazy. We thought it was going to settle down but we’re blowing and going.”
Ripeness is critical for the sweetness. Jason said most groceries sell out-of-state melons picked long before they are ripe so they can withstand transport time and have longer shelf life.
Green said his watermelons are ready to be eaten right away because they are picked at peak ripeness, and they only have a shelf life of about a week. “That’s why we’re known for sweet watermelons.”
He looks for three things to indicate ripeness: What are those indicators? “The curl, the yellow belly and the sound it makes when you thump it. We don’t pick a watermelon unless it’s got all three signs.”
The curl is a small spiral stem growing opposite the stem where the melon is attached to the vine.
Green said it’s essential for the curl to be brown and shriveled. But Jason said this sign alone can’t be used for a ripeness indicator. “It will lie to you in a wet season.”
The second criteria: the melon has to have a yellowish tinge on the bottom. A yellow belly.
Finally, he said, a thump that rings with the correct sound provides another sign of ripeness confirmation. “It’s got to have a good deep bass sound.”
In comparison, a thump on a nearby melon that’s obviously not ripe gives a tone a few notes higher.
When the ripe melons are chosen, the platoon of melon tossers take to the field. The boys take turns slinging the melons to load a wagon that’s pulled slowly across the field. To keep the boys from getting tuckered out (tired arms are likely to drop watermelons) they rotate out after about 20 throws.
Green doesn’t have any trouble getting a work crew of 8-12 melon chunkers among local high school boys looking to make some money. He has a waiting list. “I have 20 kids wanting to work.”
Jason has been in the business for 21 years.
He went to McNeese on a baseball scholarship for 18 months. “My grades weren’t that good. I was having too much fun.”
He came home to Leesville to help his father, Mark Green, hang sheetrock.
Around 1998, he said his grandfather, the Rev. M.C. Green, suggested he plant a field of watermelons to make extra money. “I’d hang sheetrock by the day and pick watermelons at night.”
He sold his crop on the highways around Leesville, and the next year he landed a deal with Big Star Grocery from Many that stocked his melons in groceries in Zwolle, Many and Leesville. Each grocery took 200 melons twice weekly.
A couple years later, he met veteran watermelon farmer Corbett Gibson from Sugartown and they hit it off as partners for 15 years until Jason bought Gibson’s watermelon stand at the intersection of La. Highways 112 and 113 at Sugartown.
Jason said his wife, Jamie, who runs their stand at Leesville, has boosted sales considerably by promoting the watermelons on Facebook on the “Sugartown Watermelon Stand” page. “She’s the one who has boosted our sales. Facebook almost doubled our sales.”
Their stands also have tomatoes, squash and cucumbers, along with honey and mayhaw jelly. Their cantaloupes just ripened too.
When Jason pulls up with a load of melons, wholesale buyers are lined up to get a truckload for sales on the highways around southwest Louisiana.
“I can pull up with a load of watermelons and in an hour they’ll be gone. Fourth of July, there’s people parked all along the road.”
Watermelon vendors dot the roadsides throughout Louisiana. John Bordelon of Moreauville sells Sugartown watermelons in Avoyelles Parish, often on Louisiana Highway 1 in front of the LSU AgCenter Extension Office. He buys from another grower, David Noland, who raises melons near Pitkin, although he has bought some from Jason.
Bordelon said people are less likely to buy watermelons on a cloudy day. “On a good hot, humid Louisiana day, you can sell melons.”
He said he’s sold as many as 50 in one day.
County Agent Hawkins said a buyer should ask a few questions of a roadside seller --- like where the melons were grown, who was the grower and when were they picked –to make sure the fruit is genuine Sugartown.
Jason is fully aware that less scrupulous sellers falsely claim their product is from Sugartown, but he said there’s not a lot he can do about that. He said he’s gotten calls from as far away as the Carolinas about bogus Sugartown sellers.
“The one thing I can tell you, is to come to Sugartown, Louisiana, and you’ll get one from here.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
GRAND PRAIRIE – Paul LaFleur’s cattle operation is based on the land in St. Landry Parish where his grandfather farmed.
Paul has named his place, Hosea’s Cattle Farm, after his grandfather, Hosea LaFleur.
Paul started raising cattle in 1995.
After years of growing sweet potatoes, cutting grass on the interstate and working for a nursery company, he decided to get in the cattle business. “When I started out, I didn’t even have a tractor.”
Paul credits the late Ray Fontenot and his son, Tony, for teaching him things along the way.
“They helped me a lot.”
He said he learned much of what he knows about farming from his grandfather. “He never had a tractor. He farmed with horses and mules. He milked a cow until he was 76.”
Paul was 8 years old when his father died, and he lived with his grandparents starting at 13.
When he started his cattle enterprise, he gradually increased his herd. “I kept adding to it, what I could afford.” He started small with 5 cows. Then he borrowed money to buy 50 cows. When he paid off that loan, he bought 100 cows and the herd grew from there.
Paul said the biggest mistake cattle owners make is violating that old rule of buying low and selling high.
He said he’s watched novices pay as much as $3,500 for a cow-and its calf. “A real cattle producer knows you can’t make money at that.”
And then they compound their problems by buying new equipment, he said.
For Paul, persistence is essential. “You have to stay with it in the good times and the bad times.”
The past 3 months have not been a good time for the cattle business. The pandemic has caused meat processing plants to close because of virus outbreaks. That has led to a shortage on grocery store shelves in some areas. But cattle prices are down while retail prices are up considerably. Added to all of that is the decreased beef demand with restaurant closings.
“This caused cattle slaughter to fall significantly, seeing slaughter numbers in late April that were 35 percent below the previous year,” said Dr. Kurt Guidry, LSU AgCenter ag economist.
“This, in turn, caused large reductions in beef production which also fell by 34 percent from the previous year in late April.”
He said fed cattle prices, which began 2020 in the $120 to $125 per hundredweight range, fell below $100 in April. Calf prices across the United States that started the year at $160 to $170 per hundredweight fell to $140 by April.
But he said cattle slaughter and beef production have begun to rebound and become more normalized and the market has responded.
Guidry said prices will improve, but it will take a while for the backlog of slaughter-ready calves to move through the market.
He said calf prices in Louisiana have improved marginally with the latest prices reported for 500- to 600-pound steers ranging from $85 to $154 per hundredweight. “While we could see a small improvement from these levels, it is unlikely that we see significant improvement until sometime later this fall or into next year.”
Paul has a group of calves that he would have sold already if the pandemic hadn’t occurred. “I’ll hold on to them until the market gets better.” Of course, that means he’ll have to castrate them and invest in vaccinations.
“It’s a gamble. I knew if I sold them, I would have lost a lot of money.”
He vaccinates for pink eye, and he uses ear tags for flies, as recommended by his veterinarian,
Dr. Craig Fontenot from Evangeline Parish. “We use a different chemical every year. Whatever he tells me.”
He said he has a few individuals who buy single calves from him for butchering. That usually works well, but this year is different. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, lots of people have bought calves for their own beef supply and that means the custom slaughterhouses are considerably behind. Paul said the area slaughterhouse he uses is booked until October.
But Paul sells most of his cattle in a group. He said he has used video sales, but he finds he comes out ahead selling to one buyer who gives him a better overall deal.
Paul likes a Brahma bull on a Hereford cow to produce the highly desired F1 Tiger Stripe calves.
But a Brangus bull on an Angus cow makes a highly desirable calf, he said.
He segregates his cows by color and keeps them in separate pastures.
He doesn’t cut corners on bulls either. Paul relies on the famed J.D. Hudgins Brahma bulls from Hungerford, Texas. The Hudgins ranch has been in operation for more than 100 years.
For Brangus bulls, he relies on GENETRUST based in Lamar, Missouri. And for Angus bulls, he goes to Earl Lemoine in Moreauville.
One thing he is particular about is bulls with the genetics of producing low-birth weight calves so he doesn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to pull calves.
His calving season from January through March.
Bulls are put on cows for 3 months, starting in March. He tries to keep 25 cows per bull.
Paul also works at the Dominique’s Livestock Market every Tuesday, using a horse to move cattle from pens to the auction block. Occasionally he’ll see a good cow to add to his herd.
Paul said he’s gotten to the point that he’s ready to sell replacement heifers. “I never could sell them before because I needed them.”
Paul also sells hay. He figured out early that if he was going to be in the cattle business, he would have to be in the hay business to provide his cattle and to sell. “If I had to buy my own hay, there’s no way I’d make it.”
He rents adjacent land for hay production and grazing, and he has cows on pastureland near Prairie Ronde.
His hay operation produces about 5,000 round bales a year. To handle that kind of volume, he just bought a new cutter, a 17-foot GMD5251, that conveniently folds up for traveling down the road.
He has two hay trailers to carry 11 round bales without stacking them.
His favorite hay is bermudagrass, and he uses Alicia, Jiggs and Russell. Pasture planted in those hybrids have to be maintained with fertilizer and herbicides.
Paul said his most problematic weeds are johnsongrass, carpetgrass and especially vaseygrass.
Feral pigs damage his pastures in some areas. He has a friend who hunts the hogs and that helps control but not eliminate them.
He also has meadows of bahiagrass that doesn’t need fertilizer or herbicide, so maybe in the long run it’s more cost effective.
(Paul recalled during his days of cutting grass on the interstate, they actually harvested hay from the right-of-way along I-49. In addition to the problem of trash and debris in the grass, loading the hay next to a highway was a challenge, he said, so it wasn’t as practical as it might seem.)
His cattle have continuous access to hay. They also are given feed every morning. He buys the feed, containing corn, soybeans and cottonseed meal, from a feed mill in Mansura.
Calves have constant feed available to them in the pastures. The feed trailers are enclosed with fencing that allows entry for calves only.
Paul and his wife, Amy, have been married for 25 years. She works for the St. Landry Parish School Board They have a daughter, Taylor, who is attending LSU to become a project manager, and two sons, Joshua who works offshore and Jordan who’s in the tree-cutting business.
Paul and Amy have three grandchildren. “I’ve got one grandson (Jackson) who might take over the cattle.”
Paul figures even when he’s retired, he’ll still have a small herd of cattle.
He is a graduate of the Louisiana Master Cattleman Program. He praised the program for providing a wide range of information for anyone who raises cattle, regardless of their experience level.
“You don’t ever know everything,” he said, stopping to pick up a buttercup weed and explaining how he learned to control that plant from the Master Cattleman Program.
Paul didn’t volunteer the information, but his wife reminded him that he was named Louisiana Cattleman of the Year in 2006, and St. Landry Parish Cattleman of the Year in 2015.
Vince Deshotel, LSU AgCenter regional beef cattle specialist, said Paul has prospered because he keeps his overhead expenses low, and he takes a conservative approach. “He grew his operation from the ground up.”
He said Paul’s emphasis on good genetics has been an investment that’s paid off in the long run.
“He’s got a pretty good hay business,” Deshotel said. “He trades out equipment frequently so he doesn’t have a lot of down time.”
And he said Amy’s help at accounting lets Paul concentrate his efforts in the field.
Deshotel said cattle producers in general have a better outlook. Recent warm weather has boosted forage growth. “People are getting some hay cut.”
And he said the cattle industry is showing signs of improvement. “The market seems to be somewhat better, far better than in April when it bottomed out.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
DURALDE -- Jeremy Craton didn’t grow up on a farm. He got a taste of agriculture one summer working for Acadia Parish farmer Bubba Leonards.
“That was my introduction to farming.”
Jeremy said he wasn’t even able to drive. “I was just 13 or 14 years old.”
He said he learned a lot from Bubba and his father, Dennis Leonards, and much of the work was done with a shovel. “I didn’t know there was a top cut or a bottom cut in a field. I’m glad they had patience because I sure needed it.”
After graduating from Notre Dame High School, he attended college at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and LSU-Eunice for a few semesters, but he figured out college wasn’t for him.
Jeremy started working for a construction company, and he found out he liked playing in the dirt with heavy equipment and driving 18 wheelers. “You couldn’t get me away from it.”
He said his first year of farming 10 years ago at age 30, he had 40 acres of rice, and he was hooked. Jeremy said his father, Crowley attorney John Craton, helped him on the business end by teaching him money management.
He said he enjoys farming because of, “Being in the dirt. Being my own boss.”
But he quickly learned that if he wanted to be a rice farmer, he had to go into the crawfish business.
“It was actually crawfish that helped me where I am now, and I’m not nearly out of the woods.”
He relied heavily on his father-in-law, Paul Lejeune and Paul’s brother, Neal Lejeune, for farming advice. They all help each other at harvest time.
His son, Gage, age 14, helps on the farm during summers. He’ll be in the 9th grade at Basile High School this year. With schools closed because of the pandemic, he has been a regular fixture on the farm.
Besides Gage, Jeremy and his wife, Tiffany, have two other children, daughter Riley, who will be a senior this year, and their youngest, 8-year-old Wyatt.
Jeremy thinks Gage and Wyatt might become farmers. “Both boys have a pretty good interest in it. Every chance they have, they’re with me.”
He is working this year with Keith Fontenot, retired county agent in Evangeline Parish who is the research associate working with the LSU AgCenter Rice Verification Program. A handful of fields are chosen throughout the state’s rice-growing areas for the Verification Program, and Fontenot helps farmers with technical advice on planting, pest control, fertilization and water management.
On Jeremy’s 46-acre field for the Verification Program, he had the rice variety Cheniere flown on at 80 pounds an acre on March 22.
Fontenot said he is recommending that Jeremy apply a third of the field’s nitrogen, followed by another third after 2 weeks, and the last third at green ring. He also recommended spraying propanil to control sedges.
Jeremy said he benefits from the Verification Program by having another viewpoint from Fontenot and Evangeline Parish County Agent Todd Fontenot. “I like meeting with them and walking the fields and listening to what they have to say. They walk a lot of fields with a lot of problems.”
Keith Fontenot said he is impressed with Jeremy’s attitude. “No matter how bad the situation is, he can deal with it. He doesn’t get rattled and he takes things as they come. He keeps a level head.”
He recalled that one morning, Jeremy had a series of problems that came up at the last minute. A crawfish boat and a spray rig had problems at the same time a home improvement project was about to start, but Jeremy showed up for a meeting anyway. “Anybody else would have said, “I’ll see you later. I got problems I have to deal with.”
Todd Fontenot said Jeremy was in the Verification Program several years ago when it was run by Dr. Johnny Saichuk. Jeremy allows some of his land to be used for the Asian Soybean Rust sentinel plot to monitor possible outbreaks of the disease, and he sits on the Evangeline Parish Rice and Soybean Advisory Committee. “He’s been easy to work with and eager to work with us.”
Jeremy said much of the rice he grows has been sold to Bunge and shipped to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, so he is concerned whether the ports along the Gulf Coast will remain operational. (The Zen-Noh Grain Corp. of Japan announced in April that it is buying Bunge’s 35 grain elevators along the Mississippi.)
He also grows medium-grain rice that he sells to the Kennedy Rice Mill in north Louisiana at Mer Rouge.
This year, the Craton farm has about 275 acres of medium-grain and about the same acreage in long-grain. He won’t grow a second rice crop because he wants to concentrate on crawfish. He has about 600 acres in crawfish this year.
Although he has grown soybeans before, he quit growing poverty peas several years ago.
Last year’s rice crop was mixed for Jeremy and most farmers because of disease problems. His long-grain yield averaged only 32 barrels, but he got 50 barrels an acre from his medium-grain crop planted in Jupiter.
He said kernel and false smuts were widespread, and huge clouds of yellow and black dust filled the air at harvest. “Late afternoon we’d have to stop to wipe the windows down on the combines. If we had to work on a combine, you’d have to blow off the dust first.”
He expects the smut will return this year, but he has a plan to fight the problem. “I’m considering an earlier fungicide treatment and a second treatment.”
He’s more optimistic about his rice this year than last year when prices were low, and the crop was one of the worst in many years. “There’s more potential right now than last year.”
“The cost of inputs is just as much as last year,” he said, but added that fuel is much cheaper.
He started selling some of his crawfish to a new buyer recently, and that absorbed much of his harvest. For a while, his original buyer limited how much could sell. “Even during Holy Week, we were limited.”
But with a new additional buyer, he has been able to resume harvesting at full capacity. “Last week I was able to start fishing everything.”
But he said the limits placed on his catch apparently resulted in an overpopulation which has led to a smaller size overall. “The quality has gone way down. I fished 240 acres yesterday, and I caught 25 sacks of peelers.”
He figures the overall economic loss for his crawfish this year has probably cost him about $500 an acre. “It’s not good. Crawfish usually has to make up the difference for the rice. It’s going to be tough.”
Jeremy started running his boat with cage wheels, made by Hughes Manufacturing of Jennings, instead of paddle wheels, on four of his five crawfish boats this year. He said the cages don’t rut fields as badly as the conventional paddle wheels.
Jeremy is pleased with the progress of his rice crop so far this year.
Keith Fontenot travels through the rice growing area weekly to check on Verification Program fields, and he said the young rice crop looks good. Some of the early dry-planted rice had uneven stands at first, he said, but they have evened out gradually. He said a Verification Program field in Acadia Parish is approaching green ring.
Dr. Dustin Harrell, LSU AgCenter extension rice specialist, said “This year’s rice crop has had a tremendous start. It’s one of the best starts I’ve seen in a long time.”
He said the overall temperature in March was 10 degrees warmer than the average. “Our crop really jumped up to a good start.”
A few days of cold weather in April probably slowed growth but the crop has bounced back, he said.
Harrell said some fields have had a problem with chinch bugs, and some rain events have interfered with fertilizer applications, but south Louisiana rice is doing well.
He said north Louisiana and Arkansas growers have had problems with wet weather at planting.
Todd Fontenot said the Evangeline Parish rice crop looks ahead of schedule, maturing quicker than usual. He said the crop was beaten up by a heavy storm in late April.
“It’s coming out of it now. This weather has been pretty good for growing rice.”
Story by Bruce Schultz
Dr. Mike Strain, Commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, is concerned that folks in rural parishes are not abiding by the stay-at-home orders issued to keep the coronavirus in check.
It’s a part of the close-knit nature of rural life to socialize and have gatherings for barbecues and crawfish boils. But Strain is advising that now is the time to stay at home so that we will continue to have those friends and relatives for the future.
Strain urges everyone to continue to follow CDC guidelines for health, hygiene, cleaning and disinfection.
The coronavirus’ impact on Louisiana’s population becomes more obvious every day. For Strain, whose friends span the state, he knows several individuals stricken with the virus, including family members, friends in state government and several people involved in agriculture.
He said now is not the time to relax rules for social distancing. “We’re not there yet. We are now at the end of the beginning.”
He said most of the focus has been on urban populations, but rural areas need to observe social distancing and stay-at-home orders as well. “We’re telling everybody they need to take this serious. In rural areas, they are not taking this as seriously as they should. It can really hit a rural area hard.”
Strain said farmers tend to lead a healthy lifestyle, and they are usually working outdoors. And they are accustomed to working alone. Farmers are usually social distancing as they work the fields and pastures, Strain said. “Also farmers practice a lot of good hygiene. They are used to dealing with herd health.”
He said livestock producers understand diseases, vaccines and the need to isolate new or sick animals.
He said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has recognized agriculture as critical infrastructure, and the following have been identified as essential:
• Workers supporting groceries and other retail businesses that sell food and beverage products.
• Restaurant carry-out, delivery and quick-serve food operations.
• Food manufacturing employees and agricultural processors.
• Farm workers and support service workers.
• Agriculture warehouse, distribution and transportation workers.
• Governmental agencies involved in regulatory and program support of agriculture.
• Workers who support the manufacture and distribution of forest products.
• Employees who make and maintain agriculture equipment.
“It is imperative for our national security that we continue to provide food, fiber, energy and health requirements for the human and animal populations. We must ensure these vital goods and services are protected and not interrupted,” said Strain. “We are committed to facing this crisis head on and working as a team at the national, state and local levels.”
Getting imported farm labor into the U.S. – crucial to the state’s sugar industry and crawfish producers and processors -- has been a bigger problem since coronavirus reached the U.S., Strain said, but federal agencies have responded to concerns. “The USDA stepped up to the plate. The USDA has leaned forward with the Department of Labor.”
Now, foreign workers who went through the required interview will be allowed into the U.S.
Strain said commodity prices have not been hurt as severely as stocks. “By and large, they have been fairly stable.”
But he said corn has been hit the hardest, probably because of the price drop in oil prices from the decreased demand for fuel and the lowered prices.
He said an anticipated 25 percent drop in nationwide corn acreage will probably shift more land to soybeans.
Strain said this historic crisis has shown citizens the value of American agriculture. “More than ever, we must recognize the importance of our farmers, ranchers, foresters and producers. They are still working to keep the food supply chain plentiful, safe and healthy.”
Strain said there is an increased demand worldwide for food produced in the U.S., although getting those products overseas on ships could be a problem.
“If a sailor gets sick, no one will board that vessel,” he explained.
He said it’s important to have backup personnel in the shipping industry as well as inspectors.
At food processing facilities, staffing is a challenge also, he said. As people get sick, there may be no one to replace them. “For food inspectors, we do not have significant additional workers, should our workforce get sick. We’ve been working very hard to keep those things in motion.”
Now that restaurants are only open for pick-up and delivery service, he said, people are cooking more at home and that means grocery spending has jumped considerably. Not just toilet paper is in short supply at groceries.
“Our biggest struggle is to keep sufficient food production to stock the grocery shelves.”
He said he got a frantic call from someone who mistakenly thought the nation has a reserve of milk being kept out of the marketplace. Strain said he tried to explain that dairy facilities are operating at full throttle and that dairy products are in the marketplace as soon as they are processed, packaged and shipped. “You can’t milk that cow any harder.”
Strain said he understands the problems currently faced by crawfish producers with decreased demand from restaurants and sharply lower prices. “A lot of farmers break even on rice and make money on crawfish.”
Strain said the public can help by buying crawfish, maybe even a sack to boil at home to freeze the tail meat. He said consumers should consider buying not only crawfish but other Louisiana food items. “Now’s the time to learn canning and to put products up.”
As a veterinarian, Strain knows the science of diseases and how they spread. He said antibiotic supplies for humans and animals are in short supply.
So far, he said, it does not appear that domestic animals are susceptible to the coronavirus.
“Less than 10 animals worldwide have tested positive. It’s not felt that animals can contract or convey the virus.”
This disease originally jumped in China from a bat to a pangolin, a critter like the armadillo, and then to humans. Strain said viruses historically have originated in a lower species and then mutated to allow an infection of humans. Several influenza strains started in birds, first in wild flocks then moving to domestic birds.
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
BOYCE – Adaptation is the key to Robert Duncan’s beef cattle production on the family farm of 1,200 acres in Rapides Parish near Boyce.
As the price of ryegrass seed went through the roof, Duncan looked for a cheaper forage for this year on a 110-acre pasture. He bought wheat seed straight out of a neighbor’s field and broadcasted it at 90 pounds per acre.
When he ran out of wheat after about 80 acres planted, he bought enough ryegrass seed to finish out the remaining 30 acres, and that provided him comparison.
He also planted another 160 acres of ryegrass planted by airplane.
Ed Twidwell, LSU AgCenter forage specialist, said wheat as a winter forage is a good alternative to ryegrass. It matures faster in the spring than ryegrass, he said. “When utilized during the winter and early spring, wheat provides a good source of nutrition for livestock.”
Twidwell said wheat should be planted about an inch deep, considerably deeper than ryegrass.
“Wheat is more winter-hardy than annual ryegrass, and therefore provides some insurance for livestock producers who are concerned about winter damage to their forage stands,” Twidwell said.
He said ungrazed wheat pasture can be made into dry hay or baleage in April or early May.
Vince Deshotel, LSU AgCenter regional livestock agent, said the wheat forage used on the Duncan farm works well in areas with good drainage but it probably wouldn’t work so well in south Louisiana with flat ground and predominantly clay soils.
Duncan plans to plow the remaining wheat and ryegrass in mid-April before soybean planting instead of using herbicides.“Steel is cheaper than chemicals.” He also figures he’ll get a boost in organic matter.
The Duncans’ cattle are commercial cross. Bulls are Angus or Brangus, although they’ve tried other breeds including Charolais, Hereford and Beefmaster. They prefer sires from the Branch Ranch in Coushatta.
The Brangus introduces some Brahman influence. “Buyers only want so much extra ear. There’s something about black-and-white faced cows that buyers like.”
Robert said they have found that mixed breed cattle seem to withstand the disease and insect pressure better than a single breed. “They’re just hardier animals.”
So far, they have used their own stock for replacement heifers. Red ear tags designate the keepers. “Some years we’ll keep three or four, and others 12 or 15. But we only keep the best of the best. We like to keep around 200 head of momma cows. We’re a little off from that now because we sold some off in the fall.”
At one time, row crops dominated the Duncan operation. “We farmed more, and the cows were just lagniappe.”
But when his uncle retired from farming and his grandmother died, things changed. “We put more effort into cows to improve the herd.”
One major change was implementing a defined breeding season. “We used to leave the bulls here year-round. “With a breeding season, you close the window down.”
Bulls are now left the cows December through April and then again in May and June. That cycle provides fall and spring calving seasons.
They use video sales with Superior Livestock based in Fort Worth. When the calves are penned for vaccinations and castration, a video crew takes footage for prospective buyers, and the auction is held online.
“By then, we should pretty much be done with calving.”
They have a 30-day window for delivery.
Deshotel said the video sales have allowed producers to expand their reach into the national market. The sales are generally only available to producers who can sell roughly a truckload of calves, roughly 90 head, but small producers could pool their cattle with neighbors to put together a load, he said.
The Duncans’ cull cattle are sold at the Red River Livestock auction barn in Coushatta.
Three years ago, Robert started selling half and whole calves to local buyers. Their calves are processed by the Louisiana Tech Meat Lab.
The Duncans will have 450 acres of soybeans this year.
Robert said the field now with wheat and rye can be irrigated in 2-3 days using Bayou Rapides water, using a combination of poly pipe and hard pipe, but that wasn’t need last year because of frequent rain. In a normal year, he estimates irrigation is need 2-3 times.
On irrigated ground, the Duncans are happy with a little over 50 bushels of soybeans an acre, and over 40 bushels on dry ground.
The Duncans don’t have grain bins, so they haul their beans to Bunge in Jonesville.
Robert went to LSU-A for a couple years, then sat out for 2 years before he enrolled in Louisiana Tech where he graduated in 2015 in agribusiness with a plant science minor.
He is a fourth-generation farmer. His great grandfather, RMC Duncan, farmed in Grant Parish. His grandfather, RMC Duncan II, farmed that land until 1953 when the family moved to the Boyce farm where Robert now farms with his father, RMC “Robbie” Duncan III. Robert is actually RMC Duncan IV, but goes by Robert.
Robert’s wife, Rachel, has started a cut flower business in their backyard. She sells her products at the Alexandria Farmers Market.
“We literally plowed up our backyard to grow flowers.”
To Robert’s surprise, the enterprise has been successful. “She usually sells out.”
She also has a base of customers who sign up 6 or 12 weeks to have fresh cut flowers. “I didn’t realize how much work was in it,” she admits.
The first of their year’s crop of flowers has been transplanted from seedlings grown indoors, and she expects to start selling by April, unless Robert caves in and builds that high-tunnel greenhouse she wants.
Rachel also is a portrait and wedding photographer. One of her biggest draws is photographing her subjects in a field of cotton.
The Duncans have Facebook pages for the photography, cut flower and beef enterprises (Bayou Petals Flower Farm, Rachel Duncan Photography and R&R Duncan Cattle).
Robert is active in Louisiana Farm Bureau and he is vice president of the Rapides Parish Farm Bureau Board of Directors, and he’s on the Farm Bureau’s Livestock Committee. He and Rachel also are Farm Bureau State Committee members for District 4.
He participates in the annual trek to Washington D.C. to meet with Louisiana congressional delegation to inform them of the problems facing farmers back home. He admits being surprised by how much he enjoys that trip. “Farm Bureau has opened a lot of doors to do things like that.”
He is currently in the 2020-22 class of the LSU AgCenter Leadership Program.
He has been through the LSU AgCenter Master Cattleman Program twice, once on his own and again with Rachel, and he said it was well worth the investment of time. “If you didn’t get something from every class, you weren’t paying attention. You get a little bit of everything from everywhere.”
Deshotel, also LSU AgCenter Master Cattleman coordinator, met Robert and Rachel Duncan when they attended the Master Cattleman program at the Dean Lee Research Station.
Deshotel said he was impressed with Robert’s eagerness to learn. “He was very open to be more educated in beef cattle production, and management of his herd.”
Deshotel said the Duncan operation is succeeding because they recognize the need to diversify.
He said he was impressed with The Duncans’ activity in agriculture advocacy groups, including Farm Bureau and Young Farmers and Ranchers, and their efforts traveling to Washington D.C. to meet with congressional leaders is an asset for Louisiana.
“It takes the willingness of those kinds of people to lobby Washington to let Congress know what’s going on here.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
CROWLEY – The genesis for Acadia Crawfish can be traced back to owner Scott Broussard’s high school days.
“You probably won’t believe this but when I was a sophomore in high school, me and two friends, Stephen Moody and Mark Provost, wrote this exact business plan,” Scott revealed.
Even as a boy, he knew something about crawfish and farming. “Farming was in my blood.” His family had farms in Allen and Acadia parishes where cattle, soybeans and rice were raised.
While in 4-H, he had a 4-H Club project raising 12 acres of crawfish.
After graduating from Notre Dame High School in Crowley, Scott went to the University of Southwestern Louisiana where he played football and eventually decided to start working. He took jobs in the oilfield, at an ethanol refinery, at the family-owned Broussard Rice Mill near Mermentau and he sold cars for a Crowley dealership.
In 1991, he pulled out that business plan from high school and started farming 40 acres of crawfish to sell at a drive-through business in Crowley. “My wife and kids served crawfish out of a window. We just built it to where we are today. I pinched my pennies to survive.”
It takes considerably more labor to staff the business today. At its peak, the Acadia Crawfish plant will run 24 hours, with the peeling operation running in the day, and the whole-boiled crawfish at night.
Acadia Crawfish has a full-capacity workforce of about 160-170 employees. About 100 work in the peeling operation. Another 30 work on the farm operation, and the rest work all over the facility.
Almost all the workers are Mexicans. Many have worked 18-20 years for him, and he knows the regulars by name. “They are good people. Good workers. Very honest.”
“If I could not afford to house them, I would put them in my house with me. We treat them very well and they treat us very well.”
Scott still has enthusiasm for getting up to work at his business every day.
“I love what I do. It’s a challenge to buy and sell. It’s never the same obstacles. And I know I’m helping a lot of people.”
Scott’s wife, Julie, is the chief financial officer of Acadia Crawfish.
All five of the Broussards’ children work in the business. Their oldest son, Trent, oversees bait sales and he manages the farm. The youngest son, Taylor, works on the Acadia Crawfish farm of about 600 acres where rice and crawfish are produced, and he is a bareback rider on the professional rodeo circuit.
The third son, Trey, works in sales and inventory control.
One daughter, Elizabeth Broussard Schmid, works in receivables (she has become a standout in barrel racing for McNeese State University) and daughter Emily Broussard Stutes works in accounting for Acadia Crawfish.
Scott and his wife have grandkids to occupy their time when they’re away from Acadia Crawfish. “I have 11 grandkids and the twelfth is on the way.”
The Acadia Crawfish plant has about 120,000 square feet built on the old Jimmie Gainnie Chevrolet dealership lot on Second Street. “So we were able to buy this property in June of 2015 and we started construction immediately.”
The need to build a custom facility became obvious after Broussard and his workers were on the job 18-20 hours a day. “We couldn’t get our product in refrigeration in a timely manner.”
He said the new building is much more efficient. “It allows us to have a better product for our customers.”
Those customers include local groceries in Acadiana, as well as grocery chains based out-of-state.
Broussard said even though he has an established business, contact with existing buyers is required. “They don’t just break down your door. You have to pursue it and be competitive.”
Broussard said the business buys crawfish from 50-60 farmers in the area, and from other brokers who buy from farmers.
This year’s crawfish season has gotten off to a good start, he said. “It appears to have a lot of production. We’re hoping Mother Nature gives us the weather for them to grow.”
He said the crawfish will molt and grow with the cold fronts that typically roll through in the winter and early spring.
Broussard is concerned that a sudden freeze in the fall may have stunted his medium-grain rice stubble and he’s worried that the food supply for crawfish may play out by mid-spring.
Mark Shirley, LSU AgCenter crawfish specialist, said the mild weather has been favorable for crawfish. “The weather has been cooperating with warm spells to help crawfish grow to a larger size.”
Shirley said crawfish early in the season might appear too small to harvest, but it’s a mistake to return those crawfish to a pond with the assumption they will grow to a desirable size. “If it’s big enough for a trap, you’re better off to sell them as a peeler. Putting them back will just add to the overcrowding factor.”
Shirley said it’s unlikely those same small crawfish will be caught again, and money and time have already been spent to harvest that crawfish. Shirley said crawfish that hatched in October or November have reached peeler size. “They need one more molt to get to a medium size. We’re at the point where young of the year are just reaching harvestable size.”
Shirley said more land is being used for crawfish, and this year’s statewide total is expected to reach 250,000. “Crawfish is a good alternative crop if you already have rice land with levees and a water system already in place. With the right management, you can switch into crawfish fairly easily and rotate with rice.”
Scott said more farmers are harvesting crawfish to make ends meet. “I don’t know any rice farmer that does not crawfish.”
He said farmers who sell to him have doubled their crawfish acreage in recent years, and the increase is significant this year. “We’re probably three times ahead of where we were last year.”
He said last year’s cold winter killed a lot of crawfish, but this year’s mild winter has resulted in higher numbers but a smaller size.
Shirley said the entire crawfish industry, like the Broussards’, is dependent on the guest worker program. Foreign workers arrive in January to start harvesting and employees for processing are right behind them.
Shirley said the whole-boiled operation like Acadia Crawfish has will help expand the crawfish market nationwide and relieve the local market of a glut. “I ate some the other night, and I’m sure it was last year’s crawfish but it was good. It’s acceptable especially if it’s going to markets in surrounding states.”
Acadia Crawfish hasn’t started its whole-boiled crawfish operation this year. When the price falls, Broussard will crank up that unit to have frozen boiled crawfish for sale.
Broussard said he is finding that the whole-boiled product sells better outside the area of traditional crawfish consumption. “We have had some product that goes to California, Virginia, North Carolina, Minnesota, Oregon and Nevada. We’ve actually exported some to Vietnam and China.”
Live crawfish can be hauled to the International Airport in Houston to be flown to the Asian countries that same day.
Acadia Crawfish has a fleet of trucks, but they are only used for regional distribution. Anything beyond the Gulf Coast region is transported by contract haulers.
He said about 85 percent of what the company sells is live, while the rest are processed.
Shirley said the Acadia Crawfish operation is a well-run operation capable of handling a large volume. “They’ve got a really nice modern facility that’s well-designed and laid out well.”
Scott is optimistic about the future of Louisiana crawfish. As more people beyond Louisiana learn about crawfish, the market will be able to absorb more product. “Ten years ago, we weren’t selling whole boiled crawfish. Today, the Louisiana industry is selling 15 to 20 million pounds of whole boiled crawfish a year.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
JEANERETTE – This year’s cane crop for the Patout sugar mill, the Enterprise Factory, between Jeanerette and New Iberia has not been stellar, thanks to the weather.
Randy Romero, M.A. Patout and Sons chief executive officer, said
the yield of roughly 30-32 tons per acre, was less than his expectation of 35-40 tons.
Patout processed 2.55 million tons of cane last year, but this year’s total will be about 2.1 million, Romero said.
Grinding started Sept. 24 at the Enterprise Mill and ended on Dec. 30.
Sugar recovery was better than last year, he said, about 208 pounds per ton, compared to 202 pounds of the 2018 crop.
Romero said several factors contributed to the lower yields. “Last year was extremely wet.”
And that miserable wet harvest of 2018-19 didn’t help this year’s, causing damage to stubble, he said.
Disease, specifically rust, was a problem in 2019 that probably resulted from the mild winter of 2018-19.
Fertilizer probably lost some of its effectiveness because it was applied in wet conditions in the spring, he said. “We never really saw good growth.”
Then along came Hurricane Barry in July at a crucial growth stage. Plants probably lost about 3-4 weeks of growth, Romero said. “It shredded the leaves and leaned the cane in some areas. It put that cane in shock.”
The fields were wet through August, but dried for planting in September, he said. “Overall, our harvest season went fairly well.”
Romero said the 2018-19 crop had higher tonnage because of a late growth spurt in September and October 2018, but that didn’t happen this year. “It wasn’t significant enough to contribute to a high tonnage year.”
The freeze in this past November caused the sucrose level to decrease, but Romero said the effect was somewhat minimized because of the cold tolerance of varieties 299 and 540.
“Outside of the freeze, we’ve had fairly good harvest weather.”
Dr. Kenneth Gravois, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist, agreed with Romero’s conclusion about the muddy harvest a year ago affecting the most recent crop. “It was a light crop. Anytime you have a muddy harvest, in the previous year, you have a hangover effect into the next year.”
He said the average yield was 30.2 tons per acre statewide, compared to 39.3 tons the previous year. “That was a record tonnage last year.”
But he said the average sugar extraction of 222 pounds of sugar per ton of cane was an improvement over last year when the average was 219 pounds.
Gravois said this crop was about average, and for the most part harvest conditions were dry, and planting was accomplished in good conditions. “We’re going to be optimistic for next year.”
Gravois said the recent cane acreage totaled 482,300, compared to 459,000 in 2018. He expects acreage to increase for 2020, possibly as much as 490,000 acres, as more land is put into cane production to the west and north.
Blair Hebert, LSU AgCenter county agent for sugarcane in the Bayou Teche area, said fields were badly damaged in 2018 during the muddy harvest.
He said Hurricane Barry damaged the cane worse than was initially thought with the tops of cane plants broken. The early freeze put a freeze on sugar production in the plants, he said.
“This is one of those tough years that Mother Nature didn’t give us much to work with,” Hebert said. “Overall, this is not going to go down as a good yielding year.”
Romero said Louisiana mills must run at a high-volume capacity to be profitable. To make sure that happens the Patout Equipment Corp. (PEC), formed in 2005, with a fleet of 42 combines and 220 trucks, harvests and hauls about two-thirds of the cane processed by the Patout mills.
Contract haulers were used to bring much of the cane to the mills, but high insurance costs drove them out of business, which led to the formation of harvest groups like PEC.
Foreign labor through the H2A program makes up most of the harvest company’s workforce, Romero said. “Our industry would be in serious trouble without it.”
He said it’s impossible to find enough licensed commercial drivers in the U.S. to staff the seasonal labor demand. “Our industry can’t go back.”
It’s becoming more difficult to get seasonal workers into the country in time for the harvest of Louisiana’s $3 billion crop, he said.
Immigration laws need refined to better define farm labor and farm activities, he said.
“All 11 mills in Louisiana struggle with labor,” Romero said.
Cane is sprayed with ripener 35 days before harvest, and everything is ready but everything rests on getting workers into the country in time to start cutting cane.
Also federal labor laws don’t classify the mill factory workers as agricultural and that also slows down the process of getting the labor here on time. “It should all be part of agricultural activity.”
Romero said Patout has expanded to the west, contracting with farmers in Vermilion Parish, and to the north in Acadia Parish and up to Cheneyville because available cane land has become scarce in St. Martin, Lafayette and Iberia parishes because of development. And those new residents living in those new subdivisions are not as accepting of traditional farm practices, like burning cane leaves.
With the longer harvests, all Louisiana farmers are concerned with freezing weather, but they have the option of buying crop insurance to protect their investment, Romero said. “Although it can be expensive, we encourage our farmers north of I-10 to buy crop insurance.”
Romero is convinced that tort reform in Louisiana would result in lower insurance premiums for cane trucks over time. The American Sugar Cane League and other pro-business organizations are working on that, he said. “We need tort reform in Louisiana desperately.”
He said PEC does its part towards safety in the field and on the road, with GPS monitors, dash video cameras in the trucks and radio communications. “We’ve got a stringent safety and enforcement plan.”
County Agent Hebert said the company’s safety program demonstrates that Patout is a leader at making a proactive approach to potential problems. “They have come up with concepts and ideas to address issues that arose. And they are very supportive of the farmers.”
The Sterling mill added a four-roller mill unit in 2019 to increase capacity and the Enterprise and Raceland mills will have new similar units online for the 2020 harvest to increase daily capacity, Romero said.
The Enterprise mill has 250 employees for grinding, and 180 during the off-season.
The Patout operation includes the Enterprise mill between Jeanerette and New Iberia, the Sterling Sugar Mill in Franklin and a raw sugar mill in Raceland. Patout is a privately held corporation, not a cooperative among farmers.
Romero grew up in Youngsville, graduated from the University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1981, and became a CPA working for an Abbeville accounting firm.
In 1989, he went to work for the Sterling mill and in 2002 became the chief financial officer for Patout after it bought the Sterling mill. In 2014, he was chosen as the chief executive officer for Patout.
Romero said the start and end of grinding season is stressful on everyone.
“The Patout organization is made up of a great group of dedicated people from its Board of Directors, officers, managers, supervisors, and all its employees and farmers, all of equal value,” Romero said. “Today, as in the past, the Louisiana sugar industry is blessed to have great people.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
The hemp business is coming to Louisiana in 2020.
Growers, processors and retail sellers are gearing up for the coming year, even though none of the required licenses have been issued by state agencies.
Industrial hemp is the same cannabis species grown for marijuana, but hemp is a different than marijuana. Industrial hemp can produce numerous essential oils such as the chemical compound called CBD (cannabidiol), and it must have less than 0.3% THC (Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical compound in marijuana that provides the high.
The 2018 farm bill removed hemp as a federally controlled drug and allowed for national production of the crop. The farm bill required the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create regulations for states and individual producers to follow.
Other states have had industrial hemp production, such as New York, Kentucky and Florida by participating in a pilot program of the 2014 Farm Bill. Some states such as Colorado and Oregon also have programs where marijuana has been legalized. Louisiana is one of many states later to join the game.
Licensing by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) for companies to grow, haul or process hemp is required but no licenses have been issued yet. The LDAF expects to start issuing licenses in early 2020, and that will clear the way for Louisiana’s young hemp industry. The agency is hosting a series of meetings in December, and the LSU AgCenter held an informational meeting in November.
In the meantime, several companies in Louisiana have been formed and they are ready to do business as soon as they get LDAF approval, but the Louisiana Department of Health and the state office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control are also requiring permits for processors and sellers. The ATC currently has 1,274 applicants, mostly retail sellers.
Dr. Gerald Myers, a cotton breeder for the LSU AgCenter, has been assigned to grow industrial hemp and learn about its characteristics. He has 64 plants growing in the LSU AgCenter Plant Materials Center near the LSU Campus. “Nobody has grown hemp in Louisiana for decades.”
He literally started learning about hemp from the ground up, consulting numerous published and online resources.
He is growing the plants under a research exemption. Myers has so far obtained seed from plants grown in Kentucky, Washington, California and Colorado.
He said the first thing he noticed in the growing process was the plants had low vigor and were slow to emerge from the soil. He said some of the seeds had a germination rate of less than 1% while others had 80% germination so sourcing from reputable suppliers is essential. Transplants or clones are more likely to be used for essential oil production but are more expensive.
Myers said much of the hemp being grown is from genetics coming out of Canada and northern Europe, but those varieties aren’t likely to prosper in Louisiana conditions, he said. He would like to obtain varieties from Southeast Asia that are more likely to be suited for Louisiana.
He said the plants prefer well-drained soil with a neutral pH, and the nutrient demand seems to favor nitrogen and potassium more than phosphorous. “If you fertilize it like corn, you’d probably be fairly close.”
He’s also finding out that the plants are highly sensitive to photoperiods, the amount of time plants are in light and darkness. Shortening the amount of time plants are in sunlight speeds up the transition for plants to go into the reproductive phase to develop flowers, and it’s the flowers that contain the most CBD.
But most growers want plants to put their energy into producing CBD, not seed, so pollination is undesirable. For that reason, male plants that produce pollen are not wanted near female plants being grown for CBD and must be removed by hand. Small leaf buds may be clipped to encourage the plant to produce more flowers. Plants for CBD are also grown at wide spacings and there are no labelled herbicides. All this tells Myers that hemp production for CBD on a large scale would be a labor-intensive endeavor.
Licensing and testing fees under draft LDAF guidelines are likely to discourage mom and pop growers who might be thinking of growing just a few plants to make extra income.
He said that production economics are being looked at by LSU AgCenter economists.
Information on production, economics, pests and diseases is being made available on the LSU AgCenter website, www.lsuagcenter.com/industrialhemp.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that some farmers in other states are having difficulty selling their hemp crop because they failed to secure contracts beforehand, and prices have fallen considerably.
The Food and Drug Administration recently warned 15 companies, none in Louisiana, about illegally selling CBD products in ways that violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
The FDA also published a revised Consumer Update detailing safety concerns about CBD products more broadly. Based on the lack of scientific information supporting the safety of CBD in food, the FDA is also indicating today that it cannot conclude that CBD is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) among qualified experts for its use in human or animal food.
In addition to the interest in essential oils such as CBD, industrial hemp has a multitude of uses. Myers said the fiber potential might have a better long-term potential with fiber being made into make textiles, nonwoven batting, bedding materials, paper and a building material called hempcrete.
Myers said he will be working with Dr. Steve Harrison, an LSU AgCenter wheat breeder, to study the plant, and to develop varieties suitable for Louisiana. In 2020, Myers will grow hemp in field trials near the main campus and at a location in north Louisiana. He expects the LSU AgCenter will hold hemp field days in 2020. “On the national level, there is a coordinated research effort, and the LSU AgCenter will be cooperating in that.”
Meanwhile, several companies are eager get into the business.
Sales of CBD products in Louisiana have been legal as of the 2019 Legislative session. One of those sellers, Kristy Hebert of Baton Rouge, who grew up on a cattle farm near Cutoff, got into the hemp business the hard way.
She was walking along Nicholson Drive when she got hit by a drunk driver in 2012. The accident shattered her pelvis and she was in a wheelchair for a year while she learned to walk again at a rehab hospital. She was prescribed morphine for the pain, something she wanted to avoid. “I don’t even take Advil.”
Hebert said she looked for a more holistic means of pain relief and found out about CBD that gave her pain relief, and it inspired her to change her major at LSU to biological engineering to work with hemp.
She moved to Kentucky after graduation to work with the Hemp Research Foundation and the Kentucky Hemp Association.
Eventually, Hebert decided to return home and start her company, Cypress Hemp,in 2017, selling CBD-based products and clothing made from hemp. One of the most popular products, a CBD oil, is taken in the form of a few drops under the tongue. She also sells encapsulated CBD, and lotions and salves.
She also has shirts made from a hemp-cotton blend, and she said at one time hemp was a common material for making cloth. “Even the Mona Lisa is painted on hemp.”
Hebert stresses that she is not a health-care practitioner, so she can only pass along what her customers tell her that CBD has done for them. She said many have told her they have gotten relief from pain as well as anxiety.
Her products can be seen at the business website, www.cypresshemp.com. The website also has an extensive section that explains how CBD is obtained from plants, as well as the biology and chemistry of hemp and CBD.
She said she grew hemp on an acre in Virginia in 2019. “It was a great success. The plants did real well.” But production from just one acre wasn’t enough for her needs, she had to buy hemp from other farmers. She plans to grow a hemp crop in Louisiana in 2020, after she gets her license, but she expects she’ll have to buy hemp from other farmers to meet the demand.
She’s on a mission to educate the public about hemp’s benefits. “This is agriculture, just like strawberries or sugarcane.”
She plans to have Cypress Hemp processed at Courier Labsin Houma.
Courier Labsis investing $20 million in its facility. It is being constructed in the old Houma Courier newspaper building with 35,000 square feet, and an additional 20,000 square feet of space will be constructed there, according to Courier Labs partner Michael Thompson.
His partner, Ben Nearn, said the company has been operating in Colorado with a hemp grower in the past few years, but chose Houma for its base because that’s where the primary shareholder is from and because the workforce there is familiar with the refinery technology that’s used for hemp processing. “It has a fantastically suited workforce from the petrochemical industry.”
Nearn said the plant will have the capacity to produce 2,000 kilograms a month of hemp isolates, and that could be increased to 10,000 kilograms.
They are fully aware that a large initial production surge could lead to severely depressed prices.
Nearn said the facility could be ready for its first batch of hemp by the end of April. That’s assuming the regulatory hurdles have been cleared, he said. “We have a person who is employed exclusively for compliance and licensing.”
In addition, Thompson said Courier Labs is in the process of obtaining its IS09000 and Good Manufacturing Process certifications.
Chris Hansche is a partner in the Logansport company Bons Temps Growers. They plan to sell clones of hemp plants and provide advice for growers. “So we’ll be there for the entire growing season.”
Hansche moved to Louisiana after working 8 years in the cannabis business in Washington state.
He said 30,000 square feet of greenhouse space originally used to grow bedding plants is being modified to grow hemp plants, and two more greenhouses are being built.
He said they will sell small and large plants, but he recommends the larger plants for first-time growers.
Hansche said the company, once it obtains its license, will be able to provide plants now being grown in Tennessee and Arkansas.
The first year will be a chance to determine which varieties grow best in Louisiana.
He said Bon Temps Growers is pooling landowners, growers and financiers to get the industry started. “I really want to see it succeed in Louisiana.”
A lack of processing facilities has been the key bottleneck in the industry nationwide, he said. “The most critical thing they didn’t think about is, ‘What do I do after it’s grown?’ “
He said the company has made connections with a processing company that will be based in Covington.
Virgin Hemp Farms grew all of its first crop in Utah this year, but much of its 2020 crop will be in grown in Louisiana, said Blaine Jennings, a partner in the company based in Lafayette.
He said the first crop was grown in Utah because they were able to obtain a license there from the state government.
He said they have three greenhouses to start plants, and they will have 27 acres near Kinder for growing plants to maturity, in addition to continuing the Utah fields. Raised beds with plastic mulch and drip-line irrigation will be used, he said.
Also, they will use greenhouses to cultivate hemp flower specifically for smoking. Currently, smokable products cannot be bought in Louisiana. But Dr. Mike Strain, LDAF commissioner, said a recent federal court decision could prevent states from outlawing smokable CBD products, and that would lift the state ban. Jennings is aware of that court decision in Indiana, and he’s following it closely.
Jennings said the company also plans to build a processing facility with an industrial dryer.
Once a license is obtained, the company can plant seeds, but he said if licenses are issued as early as January, it will put seed growers on a tight timeline to produce seeds in time for planting in June. Plants grown for seed in greenhouses require restricted light close to maturity to simulate shortening day lengths that occur in the fall, he said.
Jennings said the specter of marijuana persists when CBD products are discussed. “There’s nothing of evil value to it. Hopefully that stigma will go away very soon.”
If a hemp crop grown for CBD contains more than .3 percent THC, the crop must be destroyed. Jennings said the amount of THC increases in hemp plants that are stressed, but the level can be reduced with an increased dose of nitrogen fertilizer.
But Jennings said variety selection can reduce the likelihood of excessive THC by careful selection of cultivars with low THC levels.
He said even though CBD plants have not been grown legally in Louisiana, it’s possible to choose varieties grown successfully in similar climates around the world.
But varieties grown in hot, humid areas of inland Oregon should perform well, he said.
Hemp prefers dry, arid climate, he said, but so does cotton and it grows well in Louisiana. But he said hemp requires soil that drains well, and that could eliminate clay soils found in rice fields and many areas where sugarcane is grown.
Jennings said anyone who wants to grow the crop should start small. “We’re not going to recommend going out of the starting blocks with 200 acres.”
He said the recent informational meeting held by the LSU AgCenter in November was beneficial for the start-up company. “We had a really good reception at the meeting.”
Jennings’ partner has a Lafayette-based company, Aromatic Infusions, that sells CBD products and essential oils.
Robert Dupont of Dupont Nursery, based in Plaquemine, hopes to start selling clones, or cuttings, from hemp plants. The nursery was established in 1975, and it has specialized in hibiscus plants from its own breeding program.
Like others getting into the hemp business, Dupont is waiting for a license from LDAF, and he expects that could happen in January. “Until then, we can’t touch a seed.”
But he’s also eager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to write its final rules for testing hemp that could provide growers with leeway for THC content.
Without that rule alteration, he said, growers will be forced to harvest their plants early to avoid excess THC. “You get above .3% THC and you’re busted.”
But Dupont said it appears that plants that produce CBG, a compound like CBD but with more therapeutic characteristics, could potentially be more profitable than CBD.
Dupont said plant genetics will be crucial to growing hemp successfully in Louisiana. “We searched this country to find good genetics in the same latitude we are in.”
He said the Hemp Mine in South Carolina has developed good southern varieties that withstand humidity, with lodging resistance. He said the company’s varieties appear to grow well in clay loam soils.
Danny Dupont of Plaquemine, brother of Robert Dupont, has the Z-Top Greenhouse Co. He said growing hemp in a greenhouse provides control of moisture and insects. He said his greenhouse design features a filtered system that won’t clog. “It’s going to fit well with hemp.”
He said he has seen hemp plants that were stressed after a rainy spell. “These times when we get a week of rain, the plants are going to struggle. The roots don’t like to be wet.”
The LDAF is hosting free orientation meetings for cultivating, processing and transporting industrial hemp in Louisiana.
“Anyone interested in obtaining a license to cultivate, process or transport industrial hemp in Louisiana is encouraged to attend,” said LDAF Commissioner Mike Strain.
Topics of discussion will include licensing requirements through the LDAF, seed acquisition, cultivation and processing, as well as transportation regulations.
Registration is required. For details on how to register, go to the LDAF website at www.ldaf.la.gov, click on “Industrial Hemp” and a link to register is located under “Louisiana Industrial Hemp Regulatory Orientation.”
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
BRANCH – If life gives you lemons, make lemonade, so the saying goes. Mike Fruge has made his own version of that saying, using rice to make vodka. (Lots of rice farmers would say this year’s crop has been a big lemon.)
Fruge said it was the pattern of year-after-year of low returns on rice farming that led him to look at an alternative way to make money from growing rice.
“I’m actually trying to build a family business and brand so we can keep farming.”
His 80-proof rice vodka, labeled J.T. Meleck, has been on store shelves in south Louisiana for a year, and he has a warehouse full of bourbon also made with rice that is currently aging.
He admits he had a lot to learn about making spirits. “I didn’t know the first thing about it.”
So, he set out to see if he could make vodka from rice. He read all he could find, then attended a craft distillers convention in Baltimore and made a few contacts. “I asked a lot of people a lot of questions.”
Finally, someone at the event advised him to make 100 cases of vodka and to see if it would sell.
Rice is a natural for making liquor. “You can make alcohol from any starch,” Fruge said. “If you want it to taste good is where the trick comes in. I’m not a vodka expert, but I know what I like.”
The process is simple. The grain and other ingredients are cooked, then fermented, and finally distilled.
Fruge is tight-lipped about the exact details of his process. “I’m very protective of the recipes. I had an idea of what would work. I tried it out, and I was right. We leave just a hint of the rice smell.”
He doesn’t want to say what rice variety he uses, or whether long-, medium- or short-grain is used. He said the distillery needs about 70 acres of rice currently, but that could change. “If we are successful, we’ll need other farmers to grow it.”
His brother, Mark, oversees the family’s 4,000-acre rice crop. “He plants and he grows it, and he manages it.”
Jeremy Hebert, LSU AgCenter county agent in Acadia Parish, said he enjoys working with Mark. “He’s a very good farmer. I deal with Mark quite a bit and he’s always open to suggestions and follows LSU AgCenter recommendations.”
Hebert, who has made a few batches of whiskey himself, said the Fruge brothers are trying to get as much out of rice production as they can.
“I’m eager to try some of their product. They’re tapping into a unique product that’s going to find a new market for rice. Not on a large scale, but a niche market.”
Mark readily admits that the farm’s 2019 rice crop, like most others, was under par.
He grows a second crop of rice but it’s intended for crawfish, not for the grain. Traps have already been placed in the dry fields in anticipation of flooding.
Fruge crawfish are sold live and whole boiled. Orders can be placed by phone or online at www.cajuncrawfish.com. They also sell turduckens, stuffed chickens and other Cajun foods.
Fruge said he enjoys creating and building a business. “I’m a serial entrepreneur.”
Fruge has been in the seafood distribution business for 30 years, so he knows how to sell a product. In one way, selling liquor is easier because unlike seafood, it has a long shelf life.
He has a clear analogy of what it’s like to sell fish: “Somebody sells you a lit stick of dynamite and you’ve got to sell it before it explodes.”
He said he has a 4-day window to sell fish, and he’s often had no choice but to discard product that is too old.
Fruge Seafood buys salmon and tuna from Alaska, Chile and the Netherlands, for distribution to consumers, mostly restaurants, throughout the U.S. Mike has the distribution part of the business in Dallas, with the sales force based in Branch.
It all started when he thought he could haul a truckload of crawfish to Texas to make more money than he could by selling to local distributors who would double their money trucking their product to Houston.
“I thought if you can double your money in Houston, you can triple your money going to Dallas.”
He quickly found out that most Texans that far north didn’t even know what a crawfish was, much less how to cook or eat one. But his efforts revealed to him that a seafood distribution of fresh fish for restaurants could be viable. And he could sell the family farm’s crawfish as Texans’ appetites for crawfish developed.
For several years, he divided his time between Dallas and Branch, and admits the travel, being away from home and the intense work almost got the better of him.
But Fruge managed to assemble a good team for the seafood business. “The seafood company is the major cash flow tool that allows me to experiment with rice distillation.”
He made a considerable investment in a 7,000-square foot building to make the product. The building houses a new cooker, called a mash tun, and a modern still that he’s yet to test. (He doesn’t allow photos to be made of the still because he doesn’t want competitors to know what he will be using.)
Six 10,000-gallon fermenting tanks will be in place soon, and a custom-made boiler has been installed to generate food-grade steam for the cooker and distilling unit.
Fruge has plans to build a tasting room in Branch, as well as a larger storage area for bourbon. But at this point he’s not sure if Fruge Spirits will produce mostly bourbon or vodka.
Before he made vodka, Fruge started by making bourbon and he thinks he has a unique angle in the craft spirits market. “Nobody is making rice whiskey.”
To be sold as bourbon under federal law, it must be made from more than 51 percent corn in the grain recipe. While some distillers also use rye or malt, Fruge uses rice with the corn.
After bourbon is distilled, it must be aged in white oak barrels that by federal law can only be used for one batch. Used barrels can be used by the Tabasco company to age pepper mash or by Scottish distillers to make scotch whiskey.
The barrels are charred on the inside, and that’s what gives the whiskey its tawny color. Fruge said tannin in the oak also imparts a smoky flavor to the bourbon.
The barrels filled with whiskey have been stored for three years in an uninsulated storage area. “We want as much heat on these barrels as possible.”
He explained that during hot weather, the bourbon seeps into the wood where it absorbs flavor. In cold weather, the whiskey leaches out of the wood, drawing out the flavor and aroma. During the 3-year aging period, he’s yet to taste it. He plans to open a barrel in October to sample it, and then he’ll decide if the bourbon is a saleable product.
Fruge hasn’t settled on a name for the bourbon or a bottle design. He also isn’t sure when it will be available for sale. “I really don’t have good answer to that. When it’s ready, it will be ready, just like gumbo.”
He stressed that patience is key to making good bourbon. “You’ve got to sit on it to see what you’re going to get. Good bourbon is 4 years old, and the best is 8 to 12 years old.”
In the meantime, vodka can be distilled and bottled in a month.
He’s kept distribution of the vodka within Louisiana so far, and the vodka can be found in several stores including Rouse’s grocery.
The vodka bottle has a distinct tapered shape. The label details the J.T. Meleck story and the logo includes several Louisiana icons, such as crawfish and rice. His wife, Courtney, came up with the design.
“I’m trying to be a niche Louisiana product. Anybody can make the stuff, but can you sell it? Can you create a following?”
Fruge has a good angle for his first product. The vodka is named after His great, great uncle J.T. Meleck, who came to Louisiana in the 1870s from Indiana and started farming. The Fruge brothers still farm on land that’ been in the family since 1896.
Fruge said it was his grandfather, Rufus Fruge, who taught him about farming, and had him on a tractor before he was 10.
What would his grandfather think of the liquor-making endeavor? “My grandfather was extremely hard to please. I think at some level, he would have to be proud, but he wouldn’t admit it. He was old school.”
“I can hear him now, ‘Fella, you sure you know what you’re doing?’ and I would say, ‘No, but I’m doing my best.’ “
Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
VICK – The Williams brothers farm in Avoyelles Parish is a long ways from anywhere, and you probably won’t pass by it on your way to another destination.
The state highway that leads to their place is as twisty as the story of how the Williams family came to the area on the north side of the Red River.
Scott and Alan’s father, Doyle Williams, originally farmed in northeast Arkansas, near Rector, Arkansas, located west of the Missouri boot-heel. “Cotton was the bread and butter back in the day,” said Alan, who is 18 years older than Scott.
He recalls picking cotton by hand in Arkansas, pulling a long sack through the rows alongside his mother. “I was 12 years old picking by hand, and my dad came and got me and put me in a picker. Dad bought a single-row picker in 1959.”
Back in those days, cotton harvest was a drawn-out endeavor, Alan explained. A field had to be harvested twice, because farmers didn’t have ripening chemicals to force bolls to mature all at once.
In comparison, corn – now the biggest crop on the Williams farm – is a much simpler crop than cotton, Alan said. “I haven’t shredded a corn crop yet.”
Their father grew cotton in Arkansas in the era of the boll weevil. High-boy spray rigs worked 7 days a week to spray methyl parathion. When the plants were at full height, the spray couldn’t penetrate through the foliage, leaving many weevils untouched, Alan said. “You’re not eliminating them, you’re just suppressing them.”
When the Williams family was in Arkansas, farmland in Arkansas and Missouri became scarce and expensive as soybeans became the No. 1 crop in the Midwest, and farmers were competing for land to grow the new commodity.
“When you’re poor, you don’t have cash to pay for land,” Alan explained.
To make ends meet, their father sold Ford vehicles in the off-season for a man with money to invest in land. The boss had heard about cheap land in Louisiana, and he sent Doyle down south to investigate around Jonesville, Louisiana.
Sure enough, there was land available but much of it was lush swampland that had to be cleared and drained.
A man with land for sale had a supper where he made a pitch to sell farmland, and Doyle was convinced that was the place to go.
Like pioneers, the family moved 452 miles south to hack out a living in a wild, untamed region.
A D-8 Caterpillar dozer was used to move felled trees, and Alan recalls it was possible to walk across a new field by stepping from stump to stump. Workers hired in Jonesville wrestled the roots by hand from the soil.
While the back-breaking work was tough, Alan recalled, making a homeplace in an isolated, strange land was even tougher.
“It was hardest on the wives,” Alan recalled. “It was hardest on the women.”
Alan recalls that their mother, Willodean, would wake them in the morning at 6 and breakfast would be ready, and often she would bring lunch to the fields, and then help pick cotton in Arkansas.
After the Williams migration to Louisiana, more Arkansas farmers followed them along with some farmers from Missouri. After moving to Louisiana, Soybeans was the main crop, and the Williams wouldn’t try cotton again there until 1974.
Alan and Scott, along with their sister, Beverly and Brenda, grew up on the farm. Both boys went away for school.
Scott pitched baseball for Louisiana College where he graduated in 1989 with a degree in mathematical computing. “I knew I was coming back to the farm.”
Alan also went to Louisiana College, playing basketball and graduated with a business degree.
At one time, the brothers farmed 3,800 acres of cotton, but eventually they had to make a tough decision and make corn their dominant crop. Nematodes in the sandy soil hurt the cotton crop so much that it became less profitable.
“We started raising corn as an alternative to cotton,” Scott said.
“Rita is the one that got us,” Alan said, referring to the 2005 hurricane that slammed Louisiana as the most powerful Gulf of Mexico storm. The 2,200-acre crop flooded from 22 inches of rain, and seeds were sprouting in the bolls and they had no choice but to shred the entire crop.
This year, they have 400 acres of cotton, and 3,000 acres of corn.
Last year’s corn crop average about 175 bushels an acre. “We’ll have some fields go over 200,” Scott said.
They expect to start harvest by the first week of August. “Usually around the second week of August is when we get into full swing,” Scott said.
Most of the corn is fertilized with 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre, although some areas get 246 pounds. Scott said they run tissue samples on their fields to determine the nutrient demand.
They irrigate about 90 percent of their corn crop using almost 30 miles of poly pipe. Coyotes are a problem with poly pipe because they rip holes in the plastic, Scott said. Repairs are made using 12-inch corrugated black plastic pipe.
After a disastrous drought in 1998, they decided irrigation was essential if they wanted to continue farming. First, they leveled their fields. “We started with one tractor and one dirt buggy,” Alan said.
They started planting corn this year on March 15 and ended 5 days later.
Flooding has claimed about 100 acres of corn this year, but they know their flooding problem is minor compared to a neighbor who had 2,000 acres flooded near Larto Lake. And then there are their friends in the Morganza area who face the possibility of losing all their crops planted in the Atchafalaya Spillway.
“When the Mississippi backs up, it causes problems for everybody,” Alan explained.
They have managed to farm on a large scale by using local workers who have proven to be dependable. The brothers have eight full-time workers, and one has been with them for 33 years.
“Most of our guys could work anywhere,” Scott said. “We employ our labor 12 months a year. We don’t ever lay them off.”
Herbicide-resistant pigweed is their biggest weed problem. They use a pre-emerge herbicide for burndown, then follow the planter with glyphosate.
Wild pigs also have been a problem, although a hired gun shot enough of them that they have moved elsewhere.
The Williams’ 1,500-acre bean crop this year is all dicamba-resistant. A neighbor grew dicamba beans last year but the Williams didn’t and their soybeans experienced a minor dicamba drift. Scott said the damage was cosmetic but it was enough to convince them that they should go all dicamba in 2019.
In 2018, they managed to harvest almost all of their 4,000-acre bean crop and 5,000 acres of a neighbor’s before last fall’s heavy rain that damaged much of Louisiana’s soybeans in the field. “We had 80 acres to cut after the rain,” Alan recalled.
Scott is the fabricator who custom builds their equipment.
He made a 90-foot hooded spray boom to handle mile-long rows of soybeans.
It folds so it can be hauled around the farm easier, but it uses large amounts of liquid quickly. So larger tanks had to be used to increase the capacity but those tanks mounted with regular John Deere parts made it impossible to turn front dual wheels. So Scott made wing-like arms, using 7-inch, half-inch wall square pipe, that hold larger tanks above the wheels. “This way, we can leave the duals on year-round.”
Alan said they had no choice but to learn to weld when they were kids. “There weren’t any machine shops around here.”
Scott said when he was a boy their dad went to Sears and bought a welding machine and cutting torch and turned them loose with scrap metal.
They will fabricate their own designs, or copy a piece of equipment. “When we copy something, it’s usually heavier than the original because out here, it takes some abuse,” Scott said.
Their farm acreage is located in three parishes: Avoyelles, Concordia and Catahoula. Some of that land is 75 miles away by road, but 15 miles as the crow flies. So after years of driving the narrow, twisty road to the distant farm, they decided to use the crow’s route and they bought an ultralight airplane. Scott learned to fly the aircraft, the largest ultralight at that time with a 33-foot wingspan.
It made scouting fields easier, and cut the commute time to the remote farm considerably. “I could land that thing on a turnrow,” Scott said.
One day they took off and the engine missed. Then it quit.
“It don’t take long to fall 200 feet,” Alan said.
They were black and blue but suffered no lasting injuries, however Alan said that ended their aviation experience. “The board of directors met, and we quit flying.”
But Alan isn’t ready to quit farming.
“I’ve got to be doing something. I just love to plant a crop and watch it grow.”
Justin Dufour, LSU AgCenter county agent in Avoyelles Parish, said enjoys working with the Williams. Dufour has held sessions to train their employees in the new worker protection standards.
“They’re very active in staying up to date on new technology,” he said.
Dufour said they have been eager to try new approaches such as cover crops. “They’re very open-minded to discuss things.”