Sugarcane producer Keith Dugas of Assumption Parish loves farming. He loves everything about it.
He remembers watching his father, the late Lloyd Dugas, on the tractor and he couldn’t wait for his turn.
“My father came from a family of ten brothers and one sister,” Dugas said. “Four of the brothers farmed and then went on to other things as they got older.”
Farming during the elder Dugas’s time was different. It was certainly labor intensive, and
took a lot of hands to bring in a sugarcane crop. Other crops and livestock were grown as well. Moss picking was still a thing in Assumption.
When Dugas’s father was growing up, mechanization was in its infancy. With the early tractors and pest management tools, a farmer was lucky if he could manage a sugarcane crop of 200 acres. That explains why farming families, like Lloyd Dugas’s, were so large.
“They still remembered chopping cane by hand,” Dugas said.
Sugarcane farming in the 21st century continues to improve efficiencies. Dugas, under the banner of Dugas Farms Incorporated, manages 1,515 acres of land in Assumption Parish along Bayou Lafourche. The acreage he harvests would be mind boggling to his father. His largest plot is the Armelise tract.
“I was raised on Clifton Plantation. That’s where I grew up,” Dugas said. “I worked for my dad the first chance I got. As soon as I could drive a tractor, after school, weekends, I was always in the fields.”
His mother, Enola, 100 years old, is still connected to the farm.
“I have to stop by her house and tell her about the farm every day,” Dugas said.
As late as two generations ago, each plantation tract was home to a community whose residents found seasonal work on the sugarcane farms. As rural education opportunities improved and mechanization and consolidation of land reduced the need for large labor forces, the residents moved away. Little communities like the one at Clifton died out.
“Pretty much that community is gone,” Dugas said. “There are a few houses. I have one aunt that still lives there.”
The Clifton tract is off Hwy. 70 near Pierre Part close to the Dow plant which is next door to the Atchafalaya wetlands.
“I farm right up to where it gets wet,” Dugas noted. “My daddy often said the fields way in the back were too wet to work before dinnertime and too dry in the afternoon.”
Wet fields with heavy land are something most Louisiana sugarcane farmers have to deal with and Dugas is no exception. He may not have gotten extensive book learning, but he certainly values the knowledge of the LSU AgCenter researchers who are using his farm to conduct a soil health study. Brenda Tubaña, LSU AgCenter soil scientist and professor in the School of Plant, Environmental and Soil Sciences is studying ways to reduce nutrient runoff from fields. The results could help midwestern farmers reduce their inputs and minimize harmful nutrient runoff in waterways. Dugas is allowing the scientists to use 65 acres to conduct their study.
“The way I look at it, if they come up with some successful techniques to help my soil health, I’ll be among the first to benefit,” Dugas quipped.
He’s amazed at the erosion study and how much soil get washed away. He’s also becoming a devotee to raking cane trash off the row tops instead of proscribed burning.
“The trash gets raked off into the furrows and helps hold the soil in the field,” Dugas said. “And the yield monitor research is paying off and helping me reduce the number of trips from the farm to the mill.”
The astonishing advances in the sugarcane industry, especially over the last 50 years, have doubled sugar production and now one farming operation can manage more than 3,000 acres. These advances meant fewer employees were needed so the rural labor force found new jobs and moved away. And finding labor is now an industry-wide problem.
“My biggest challenge is labor, Dugas said. “I use H2A and I’m lucky I have that, but this year for planting the guys were held up at the border for two months. They came in the last day I planted. I found some local guys and they lasted a few days. No one want to do this type of labor anymore.”
Dugas is interested in helping to improve mechanical planting techniques.
“I think the billet planting techniques is getting better,” Dugas said. “We may be forced to go to billet planting because of the labor situation. It’s unreal.”
The opportunity to work in the fields with his father held such a tremendous appeal to Dugas that he decided college was not for him, so he took his high school diploma from Assumption High School and went to work. He and his wife, Donna, have one son but he chose not to go into farming.
“My son, Christopher, graduated from LSU with a degree in agronomy,” Dugas said. “He’s now 36 years old and works in an industrial plant. Although I have been hopeful to have him on the farm, I also wanted him to do what he wanted just as I have.”
Farmers are some of the most hopeful people in the world and that’s what farming is all about.
Dugas sometimes enjoys working along on the wide-open spaces of his back acreage. It’s his place to meditate and put the nagging headaches of labor, costs and mechanical breakdowns aside for a while.
“I enjoy what I do,” he said. “Farmers would understand, but way out here by myself, it makes all the other stuff go away for a while. I don’t have to worry about anything.”