“Farming is a lifestyle that put me in touch with nature, which I see as a privilege.”
The average size of the Louisiana sugarcane farm is 1,000 acres so that makes Gene Adolph’s farm an average-sized farm. But Gene the farmer? Gene the farmer is anything but average.
He has the usual sugarcane pedigree. He’s a fourth-generation sugarcane farmer and grew up on the old Enola Plantation off Bayou Lafourche in Naploeonville. He has ancestors who were on the cane side and mill side (his grandfather worked for the old Godchaux Sugars).
The land the extended Bergeron/Adolph family holds includes the Enola, Wildwood and Hard Times plantations. Gene’s fraternal twin, Paul, had first dibs to work with their father, Henry Adolph Jr., on Enola, so Gene pursued vocations other than farming, namely the priesthood.
“I’ve always been interested in the deeper meaning of life,” Gene said. “I went to LSU for a couple of semesters majoring in mechanical engineering but ended up going to St. Joseph Seminary College in Covington. Ultimately, I graduated with a degree in philosophy. I did a year of graduate school in theology before leaving those studies. I taught English for two years at Assumption High School and Religion for one year at E. D. White. I was the head of the religion department at E. D. White.”
The thought of himself as a fresh-faced 23-year-old as the head of the religion department makes Gene smile, as does most of his experience. He didn’t plan on being a farmer, but that’s how it worked out.
“It turned out farming wasn’t for my brother, so I came in with my dad in 1996,” Gene said.
The sugarcane industry was in flux at that time as the new combine harvesters were replacing the old soldier harvesters. Gene and his father bought their first combine in 1998, a machine they shared with another farming operation.
Gene, now 51 years old, has come to appreciate the spiritual side of farming.
“Farming is a lifestyle that put me in touch with nature, which I see as a privilege,” Gene said. “It allows me a chance to experience the seasonal nature of life, the rhythms of the seasons and the rural aspect of life.”
Gene quickly learned there were plenty of other benefits to running an average sized sugarcane farm.
“Farming enabled me to focus on raising my family,” Gene said.
The Adolph family is comprised of his wife, the former Julie Toups of Thibodaux, whom he met on a spiritual retreat. They have three children. Daughter Regan graduated from Rhodes College and lives in Memphis. Son Spencer graduated from the Air Force Academy and is currently working on a master’s degree in computer science at Texas A&M. Their youngest son, Wesley, just turned 19 and is at LSU studying ag business.
“Julie was always involved in the kid’s education,” Gene said. “She was a nurse and working full time but as the kids were growing, she went to part-time.”
They did something right because all their children were all class valedictorians at Assumption High School their senior years.
“I was a little concerned about the kids going to a little public school in rural Louisiana,” Gene confessed. “I was wondering if they’d be able to compete. I just trusted in the process and they’ve done really well at Rhodes, the Air Force Academy and LSU.”
Gene has a great reputation in the community and grew up in the home he lives in now, a rambling farmhouse on Enola Road.
“There used to be houses out here where the families of the farm laborers lived,” Gene said. “We all played football and other sports whatever was the season.”
As the need for farm labor changed because of automation, the houses disappeared and the small community vanished. However, Gene inherited a good reputation as a boss and he’s able to find all the contract labor he needs locally because folks remember his father, grandfather and his great-great uncle, Dave Bergeron.
“My Uncle Dave had a good standing in the community as someone who could help folks secure loans to buy their houses or help them out,” Gene said.
Clarence Ford, one of Gene’s key employees, grew up and continues to live on Enola Planation. He worked for Gene’s dad as a teenager.
Gene continues to maintain the good reputation of the farm and leads by example.
“I’m willing to do everything I ask my employees to do,” he said.
The Adolphs are happy with the size of his farm but if Wesley decided he wants to come into the business, they’ll have to look at ways to accommodate him.
“It’s not to say I wouldn’t want to get bigger, but I’ve always put quality of life before growing the size of the farm,” Gene said. “I am not actively seeking to get bigger and so far, we’ve been able to be efficient and maintain a decent quality of living. I don’t know if it will bite me in the end, but if Wesley wants to come in, we might try to get more land to manage. Of course, if he wants to come in, he’ll have to see if he can do it efficiently. It also depends on the market conditions.”
Market conditions rule the farmer’s life and 2019 was not a great year for the Louisiana sugarcane industry. The yield was significantly below the five-year average. Gene finished his harvest on December 18 but he’s already looking forward to next year.
Gene is active in his church, St. Anne Catholic Church in Napoleonville, and often plays guitar/sings for church services and other community activities. He also has been known to play keyboard with his uncle in a local band called King PaKaYea.
“I wore more black in the King PaKaYea than I ever did when I was studying at the seminary,” he joked.
He also volunteers within the farming community and participates regularly with the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, the American Sugar Cane League and the League’s dedicated research committee. Sometimes he helps researchers with test plots on his farm.
In the 21st century, the trend in the sugarcane industry has been for farms to consolidate and grow larger. Gene understands just how crucial agriculture is to Assumption Parish and is doing his part to maintain the rural economy by being a good farmer. But he also understands what effect living a good life has on the community.
“People have to make their own priorities and I hope at the end of my life I’ll be known as a good father and husband who was involved raising his children and having a good life,” Gene said. “Quality of life is important. Family is important.”
Story and photos by Sam Irwin