Along the banks of the Mississippi River in St. James Parish sit majestic plantation homes and fields of sugarcane. And for more than 60 years in these fields, Charles Gravois Sr. has produced bumper crop after bumper crop of sugarcane.
His perseverance was rewarded when he was named the 2011 Louisiana Farmer of the Year.
Gravois was one of three finalists recognized for their accomplishments at the Louisiana Farmer of the Year Banquet held at Chef John Folse’s White Oak Plantation in Baton Rouge, La.
The annual banquet is sponsored by the Louisiana Agri-News Network Inc., the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, the LSU AgCenter and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
Other finalists recognized were Dennis Kieffer of Wheeling, in Winn Parish, La., and Bobby Morris of Port Allen, in West Baton Rouge Parish, La.
For three generations, the Gravois family has worked the fields near Vacherie, La., producing sugarcane, cattle and soybeans. When it comes to cane, Gravois has just about seen it all. From the mule-powered cane carts to the modern cane combine, he has watched the Louisiana sugarcane industry become increasingly mechanized.
“Oh, I’ve seen it from the mule, from the hand, everything was done by hand mostly, like weeding, hoeing and hauling cane,” Gravois said. “One of the first tractors I saw was with iron wheels. And now the combine harvester has iron tracks, so that concept is still iron for the mobility of it.”
For farmers, the weather can be your friend and your enemy. Throughout his many growing seasons, Gravois has seen droughts, hurricanes, floods and freezes. And while hurricanes can wreak havoc on a cane crop, cold weather can ruin it.
“In 1989, we had a terrible freeze. I think it went down to six or seven degrees, and a lot of the cane froze. You can always salvage from a hurricane, but if the cane goes sour, it is not salvageable,” Gravois said.
Drainage is an essential component in growing a successful crop in south Louisiana because of ample rainfall and the threat of hurricanes. To help drain his land and reduce erosion, Gravois employed what was an innovative strategy at the time.
“Precision grading. We were one of the first ones that started it, and I mean a lot of people are doing it now. But way back then, it was unique in its day,” he said.
Morris also produces sugarcane. Farming has been a tradition in the Morris family, so it was not a surprising career choice for him. But the crop he now grows is somewhat new to the family.
“Being a fourth-generation farmer, it kind of came natural to me. We used to be grain farmers, then made the transition to sugarcane at the end of the 1980s. It’s been sugarcane ever since,” Morris said.
Morris grows seed cane for other producers in the area. In order to ensure his seed cane is of the highest quality, Morris employs a strategy that gets the whole family involved.
“If we see stalks of johnsongrass in our seed cane, farmers don’t want that. They don’t want to buy that. So what we do, my wife and I, my parents, we strap on backpack sprayers with Roundup and walk all of our seed cane,” Morris said.
Kieffer is a cattle and hay producer. He also serves as farm manager for another local ranch. It keeps him busy.
“I’ve always had a love for animals, and that’s just the way it’s been with me. I put up all my hay and do all the chores as far as taking care of my cattle. It’s practically a seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year job,” Keiffer said.
Kieffer works intensely on ways that improve his operation. He knows that genetics play an important role in improving his herd, and he ensures his cattle graze on the best forage available.
“I’d say artificial insemination is the biggest thing I have done trying to improve my herd. Also, trying to grow better grass for the cattle so they can perform, convert and gain weight without putting it (nutritional supplements) in the feed,” Keiffer said.
For being selected Farmer of the Year, Gravois receives $1,000. For being named finalists, Keiffer and Morris each receive $500.