Welcome to the Sugarcane News Podcast brought to you by the American Sugar Cane League, the voice of the Louisiana sugarcane industry. I’m your host, Sam Irwin, and today we are visiting with the descendants of Abara and Mae Viator, a family who has made their living from sugarcane for generations. HEAR THE PODCAST
This is the story of four brothers, Dudley, Wilson, Roy and J.C. Viator, who started their farming careers in Iberia Parish in the 1940s. They were the sons of Abara and Mae Viator, descendants of Antonia Villatore, one the original Spanish families who settled New Iberia in 1779.
They knew the farming life would be difficult, but their lives were made harder when the federal government expropriated their family land to build a naval air station. That was a setback, but the Viator family were farmers and one thing farmers do well is overcome adversity. The family bought a working sugarcane farm, the old Rescue Plantation, in St. Mary Parish, and with the help of their sons, made a living. The four brothers eventually bought out their parents and named their farm Viator Brothers.
The French-speaking Viators had limited educational opportunities in Depression-era Louisiana and wanted a better life for their children, one that didn’t involve plowing hard blackjack soil. They insisted their children get an education. And they did.
Three Bachelor of Science degrees, one Masters and three Ph.D.s later, the elders Viators were shocked when their sons and grandsons returned to the farm and agriculture.
Daniel Viator, 73, was teaching agriculture at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette when a farming opportunity was presented. His father, Dudley, was mystified as to why his educated son would want to be a farmer.
"My father didn’t even have a first-grade education,” Daniels said. "When he was young, his brother got killed on a horse and my grandparents got scared and took him out of school. He never went back. They did everything by hand…cutting, loading…nothing like now. Where they came from, everything was just manual work, but now with the equipment, farming is not manual work. It’s business and technology.
"(My father) he realized that there was an easier way to making a living. When I told my daddy, I was teaching at UL back then, that I wanted to go into farming, he told me two things, and he’s correct on both, he said, one, you got to be crazy to go to school that long and you’re going to do that, and secondly, he said, remember, you’re going to have some good years and bad years, and when you have the good years, you save in those years. I took that literally and attribute it to the success I’ve had.”
Wilson Jr., 68, sugarcane farming is all he’s ever known.
"It’s been my whole life,” Wilson said. "We were raised on it with our parents and Viator Brothers.
We grew up here basically here in Jeanerette. Because in 1956, I was six years old and we moved from Coteau because of the land acquisition by the government. We’ve been here ever since, been in cane. Our fathers always taught us how to work, work hard. We learned to love the industry and it’s been good to the family.”
"When you look at the Viator brothers, they were hard workers, but everything they did, they tried to do it to the best. They started out with no machinery, doing everything by hand. When we moved over here, they had to learn how to farm blackjack instead of the sandy land they had in New Iberia. They would stay up all night plowing. If the conditions were right, they’d be on them tractors. In 1963, they set a high yield record of 43 tons to the acre. Back then that was phenomenal. They taught us all how to do things right and work hard.”
Wilson went to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette on a football scholarship.
"They instilled in all of us that we had to go get a college degree,” Wilson said. "I went to school on an athletic scholarship to play football, which, at that time, was called the University of Southwestern Louisiana. I was majoring in agronomy, which was a pretty hard curriculum with all the chemistry. I was struggling, but, back then, unless you were a super player, you didn’t have tutors, so I got to where I had to choose to continue playing football or get a degree. I retired from football young and got my degree in 1971 and been in the farming business ever since.”
Calvin Viator, age 76, is a successful crop consultant to the Louisiana sugarcane industry. His son, Blaine, with a Ph.D. in weed science, works alongside his father in the consulting business.
"My father, Dudley Viator, one of the four founding brothers, had no formal education,” Calvin said. "Couldn’t sign his name, barely spoke English, but he got it in his head that education was the answer to everything and pushed all of us to get as high an education as we could. Two of us got Ph.D.s. He never did understand how we ended up back in agriculture. He felt that education was the way to escape hard work. My answer to him was it gave us a choice. We all came home.”
Daniel said his father and uncles believed education was a ticket off the farm.
"They weren’t that large that could let all the kids come on the farm, and we understood that,” said Daniel. "We saw how hard they worked and most of them had limited education. We realized pretty young that we needed to get education early on. Calvin has a Ph.D. I have a PhD. Most of us have college degrees. I consider that was because of the work ethic we learned from our parents.”
"The four brothers were excellent farmers,” said Calvin. "They weren’t big farmers, four or five hundred acres. They did all the work themselves with the help of their kids. They were high yield award winners on some very tough ground.”
Calvin continued, "After that my brothers, Daniel, Cousin Wilson and my brother Ray went into farming themselves with the Triple V farms. Later on, Daniel retired. Sons Wilson and Dwayne took over most of that and now Dwayne took over most of that. And then my younger brother Richard, my cousin Douglas took over the family farm. They got about 1500 acres and that’s where we stand now.”
It’s a hot summer day and the Viators are gathered at the Abara and Mae’s old home on Louisiana Highway 674 in rural St. Mary Parish for a family photograph. The family is being honored in the annual calendar published by the Teche Growers Association, named for Bayou Teche, the muddy stream that flows through Acadiana. Brothers Calvin, Daniel, Wilson and Ray are there for the shoot. Calvin is still working in crop consulting but Daniel, Wilson and Ray are retired from farming. Another brother, Richard, is still farming but he’s absent because he and his wife are celebrating their wedding anniversary and out of out of town.
The surviving elder Viator brothers, J.C, 94 and Roy, 90, are there as well. The older men are happy with the recognition. Brother-in-law Bobby Judice (a retired sugarcane farmer), who married Wilson Sr.’s daughter is there as well. Numerous grandsons, their wives and children are all happy to see each other and cheerfully pose for the photograph. They’re part of Louisiana’s enduring 220-year-old sugarcane history.
Calvin believes the future of sugarcane farming is bright. He also believes the landscape would look a lot different without sugarcane.
"The trend is going to larger and larger operations with the economy of scale with the cost of equipment,” Calvin said. "One piece of equipment can work a lot more acres than in the past. In 1995, the average size of our accounts in our consultant service was 1,000 acres. Today it’s almost 3,000.
"(The south Louisiana farming landscape) would be pretty desolate, although we can grow other crops. We can grow soybeans on our fallow land but as far as year in and year out with our climate and making a living with grain farming, it couldn’t be done.”
"I’ve seen more changes in the last 15 years than I saw in the previous 45,” Calvin said. "I’m glad to have been part of that and I’m glad to see young people coming in.
With 11 sugar mills, outstanding scientific research and upwards of 430,000 acres planted in cane, King Sugar will likely reign for another 200 years in the Bayou State.
Sam Irwin, Louisiana Sugarcane News