Windell Jackson, the American Sugar Cane League’s (ASCL) senior agronomist, retired at the end of June after 41 years of working with sugarcane farmers and studying the sugarcane plant.
His steadfast dedication to the sugarcane industry is one of the reasons the sugar business continues to be strong, viable and sustainable in south Louisiana. He had an eye for new varieties and a knack for plainly relating his knowledge without using a bunch of scientific jargon. Through the years, he kept himself apprised on all of the available sugarcane research and development which was invaluable in keeping growers and processors profitable.
His propensity to stay out of the limelight and put sugarcane first is one of the reasons sugarcane remains one of Louisiana’s top crops. It’s an understatement to say that Windell is widely respected nationally and internationally throughout the entire sugarcane industry.
A native of Sicily Island, Windell graduated from the University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM) with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agronomy in 1971. He came to the Sugar Belt in 1973 as an ASCL assistant agronomist. The League still had its office in downtown New Orleans in the Whitney Bank building when manager Gilbert Durbin hired the young agronomist on the recommendation of League president Jimmy Thibaut and League agronomist Lloyd Lauden.
Lauden assigned Windell to the Bayou Teche and Northern region. Back then there were 1,290 sugarcane farms, but the farms, at 265 acres, were considerably smaller than they are today. Windell was green (he’d say he didn’t know a damn thing about sugarcane back then), but he had been thoroughly trained in the scientific method by his professors at ULM. He was to work with LSU and USDA researchers to rate varieties in the 13 outfield tests (10 light soil and 3 heavy soil). He oversaw the primary and secondary sugarcane increase stations that made new varieties available to area growers. Windell also helped with parish field days and demonstration plots.
Windell’s years of experience are now banked in the knowledge base that the industry has been building since the Jesuit priests first planted sugarcane in 1755. His skill in calmly managing the League’s research function has and will continue to pay huge dividends for the sugar business.
Herman Waguespack, a fellow League agronomist, said Windell’s ability to remain composed when nervous grower’s peppered him with questions is legendary.
"I always admired Windell’s experience and knowledge, but his ability to stay calm in any situation and assess the situation for what it was worth is amazing,” Herman said. "He has an uncanny ability in knowing what questions to ask to get to the heart of the matter and determine what the growers were dealing with without getting anyone too excited.”
Of course, Windell did not always know every answer, Herman said.
"Windell was fond of saying ‘Sugarcane is very resilient and very forgiving,’” Herman said. "One of the first things he taught me was sometimes you’re confronted with a field situation that defies any logical explanation. When that happens and you run out of explanation, he said to just blame it on the date of harvest.”
In 2001, Windell became the ASCL’s Research Coordinator and began writing On the Farm, his monthly column on the state of the Louisiana Sugar Belt for the Sugar Bulletin. In addition to the column, Windell authored or co-authored hundreds of research reports on subjects ranging from variety work, fertilization and mechanical planters to molecular biology and other cutting edge sugarcane technologies.
He assumed many leadership roles in the sugar industry and served as advisor to the League’s Ag Contact Committee, Dedicated Research Funding Committee, Variety Advance Committee, Variety Release Committee, Farm Machinery Committee and Processors Committee. He is an honored member of the American Society of Sugar Cane Technologies (ASSCT) and International Society of Sugar Cane Technologies (ISSCT). He served as the ASSCT Louisiana Division Ag Section chairman in 1984, 1987, 2010 and 2011 and is currently president of the Louisiana Division of the ASSCT.
It’s not enough to say that research, the lifeblood of the Louisiana sugarcane industry, advanced significantly during Windell’s tenure. The entire industry has made tremendous strides during Windell’s four decades of service. He has been willing to go anywhere, anytime, to discuss fieldwork, research and other ag techniques with anyone. He walks, talks and lives sugarcane.
He resides in New Iberia with his wife, Judy. He has a daughter, Wendy, and two grandchildren, Jackson and Gabrielle.
You don’t really replace someone with Windell’s skill, knowledge and personality. Everyone in the sugarcane industry is grateful to Windell for his years of service and wishes him well in his retirement. Somehow, I think he’ll probably still take on sugarcane questions, but only after he’s put up his fishing rod for the day.