Vermilion Parish Sugarcane Farmers Juggle Crop Production with Leadership to Earn 2022 Farm Bureau Accolades
Story and photos by Derek Albert
Erath, La. – The winners of the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation’s 2022 Young Farmers & Ranchers Achievement Award shared one emotion when accepting their honors at the agricultural advocacy organizations centennial celebration—surprise.
Despite their years of hard work operating a portion of their family’s 2,100-acre sugarcane and cattle farm, despite more than tripling the membership of the Vermilion Parish Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee that they chair together and even despite helping to elevate the Vermilion Parish Farm Bureau Committee to earn the its third consecutive President’s Award, Philip and Chelsie Domingues still said they were surprised--and honored--to be named this year’s top young farming couple in Louisiana.
“We won the award, but I felt like our parish won it too,” Chelsie said humbly. “So much of the application was based on leadership and so much of that came from the involvement that we have with our parish.”
But if Chelsie said it felt like Vermilion Parish came out on top at this year’s LFBF Convention, that’s probably because Vermilion Parish left New Orleans with several of its members hoisting plaques on stage. In addition to the Domingues’ Young Farmers and Ranchers Achievement Award, Vermilion Parish took home the LFBF President’s Award, accepted by Vermilion Parish Farm Bureau President Bryan Simon, for the third consecutive year. Rice and crawfish farmer Laura Hebert, of Maurice, was awarded the Outstanding Young Farm Woman Award. Winner of this year’s Discussion Meet, Amanda Duhon, also hails from Maurice. This year’s top Ag in the Classroom Teacher of the Year Award was presented to Haley Broussard, who teaches second grade at Dozier Elementary in Erath. Vermilion Parish’s Abbeville Meridional newspaper was recognized as this year’s top local media partner.
Though it seems the honor of winning was enough to satisfy the Domingues, they also received $35,000 from the Southern Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company; an all-expense paid trip to the American Farm Bureau Federation Convention to be held in San Juan, Puerto Rico in January 2023, as well as other cash prizes.
The Domingues have always had family ties to the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation. Philip’s late maternal grandparents Wayne and Linda Zaunbrecher were lifelong residents of Vermilion Parish where they worked as rice, crawfish and cattle farmers. Both were active Farm Bureau Federation members who held several leadership roles with the organization. The couple is now remembered with an annual Louisiana Farm Bureau Foundation scholarship bearing their names. The leadership experiences garnered from their roles with the Vermilion Parish Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee has translated to learning experiences for the couple, Philip Domingues said.
While chairing the Vermilion Parish YF&R Committee, Philip and Chelsie were able to drum up interest in the group among their counterparts by publicizing the committee’s events via the internet and social media. They even instituted an annual sushi night to bring the group together in a laid-back social setting to much fanfare. With their efforts, the Domingues swelled to committee’s membership from about one dozen to now more than 50 within a couple of years.
“The crop’s looking decent right now,” Domingues said optimistically of the sugar cane growing on his farm. “We just need some timely rains to finish it out.”
The changing of the guard on the Domingues’ operation brings with it some new practices that seem io be catching on among south Louisiana sugarcane growers.
Domingues said he and his brother, Tyler have incorporated the process of no-till fertilizing for their young crop each spring. Domingues said the practice has gained traction on their farm because it translates to decreased labor and fuel costs by having to make fewer passes in the rows. But, he said, the practice has its environmental benefits, too.
“I just think it’s better for the soil. Not turning the soil is better to let the microbes work the way they need to. About half of everything we fertilize is no-till,” Domingues said.
Sugar cane thrives in the hot, humid weather that Vermilion Parish has had thus far this summer. The constant daytime sunshine punctuated with intermittent showers coming off the Gulf of Mexico (only about seven-to-eight miles from the Domingues’ farm) usually marks exceptional growth for the stalks. With the hottest part of South Louisiana’s summer approaching, the Domingues are preparing for the sugarcane planting season to begin. This year, the Domingues are looking to plant about 475 acres of cane in their crop rotation cycle. The recurring “Catch-22” this time of year for sugarcane farmers is timely rains. While Domingues, and other sugar producers, plant their seed cane in late-July through August, they hope for timely rains to help their fledgling crop grow. But, if those rains become too substantial, the planting process is halted until the soil is dry and loose enough to open up the rows again.
“When we have trouble planting, that’s usually when our crop is the best,” Domingues quipped.
A delay in planting causes headaches because quickly following the planting season, in late-September, the harvesting season begins. Wet weather patterns, like what Southeast Louisiana saw following Hurricane Ida last year, forces farmers to have to arduously juggle the labor-intensive tasks of planting and harvesting simultaneously until the fallow ground can all be planted.
All the Domingues’ sugarcane crop is harvested and trucked along LA Highway 14 to U.S. Highway 90 to Franklin’s Sterling Sugars. The mill, operated under the umbrella of M.A. Patout & Sons, is tucked along the north bank of the sinewy Bayou Teche, 42 miles away from the Domingues’ farm. Philip said rising input costs, like that of diesel fuel, will affect the farmers’ bottom lines come harvest time. Though the Domingues are in a harvest group with Sterling Sugars, transporting this year’s harvest is a looming source of concern, Domingues said.
“This year, that’s going to take a toll on everything,” Domingues said. “If the price of diesel doesn’t change, I guess they are going to have to charge more to haul it…which takes out of our bottom line.”
Despite sky-rocketing input costs, Domingues said the current sugar markets are helping keep their heads above water.
“The price of sugar has helped us out tremendously,” Domingues said. “We just have to keep making good crops. That’s the main thing. If we don’t, we lose the input costs that we’ve already put into it.”
And, how do the Domingues manage to produce “a good crop?” They do that with the guidance of researchers with organizations such as the LSU AgCenter, the American Sugar Cane League and the USDA-Agricultural Research Station in Houma. These institutions each provide research-based data translated into new sugarcane varieties, best management practices and representation on the global sugar market.
“It sets a bar for us,” Domingues said. “When it comes to best management practices, herbicide rates…what’s better for this, what’s better for that… without the AgCenter things wouldn’t be as good as they are today. The AgCenter and the [American Sugar Cane] League have done a very good job of getting us good varieties over the years. You know, something that is going to last, hopefully, a long time.”
Domingues said L 01-299 is a stout variety whose 2009 commercial release by the aforementioned organizations has helped to keep the Louisiana sugar industry alive and well. He looks ahead to other varieties like HoCP 14-885 that are currently showing promise in south Louisiana fields.
“They say the [HoCP 14-] 885 shades really well,” he said. “They are saying that it’s ‘the unicorn’ of varieties.”
In 2012, Philip’s father, Dewey Domingues first incorporated Southern Sugar in 2012 with just under 1,000 acres of farmland. Now, Philip, his brother, Tyler, and Chelsie manage the operation that has more than doubled its acreage. When it comes to future aspirations for Southern Sugar, Domingue said he would like to branch out into planting soybeans on fallow cane fields. He said he would like to plant the legume crop to replenish nutrients into the soil where future cane crops will be propagated.
“I see a big benefit to planting soybeans,” Domingue said. “We’re not making any more soil. I’d rather build on it than bleed it.”
Together Philip and Chelsie are raising the next generation of Domingues. Chelsie said they are raising sons Grady, 5, and John Reista, 20 months, and daughter, Azelie, 4, to appreciate the hard work that the agrarian life brings. It was evident that at least one of the Domingues’ youths has already been well acclimated to the farming life.
Five-year-old Grady patiently awaited as a nosy reporter delayed an obviously pre-planned trip through the fields on one of his father’s tractors.
“He wants to go on a R-I-D-E,” Chelsie Domingues cautiously told husband, Philip.
After cooperating for a few photos to accompany this story, the aspiring young farmer was treated to his r-i-d-e.