A conversation with St. John the Baptist Parish sugarcane farmer Pierre “Pete” Lanaux slips easily between the past and the present. At 88 years old, Mr. Pete may be the state’s eldest farmer. Certainly, his farming career, which spans 68 years, is older than the average age (55) of the American farmer.
By Sam Irwin
The octogenarian remembers when his father, a factor from New Orleans, bought the Glendale Plantation in the Lucy community and brought young Pete to the farm for a look-see. (Lanaux’s generation may be the last to remember when the word “factor” was still used. A factor was a commission merchant who sold crops for farmers.)
“All of the field work was done by hand and with mules,” Lanaux said.
More machinery had been introduced by the time Lanaux and his brother, Denis, began farming Glendale in 1945.
“When my brother and I came here to farm, we still had mules on the place,” Lanaux said. “They had tractors, but they still used mules with cultivators. All the fields had ditches ever 12 to 18 rows. You had a man with a plow that opened quarter drains across the square. All the ditching was done strictly by hand in those days. All the equipment was more or less single row.
“I remember when Thompson had a two-row plow. To keep the cultivators in place, a man sat on a swing in the back of the tractor and pulled them in and out with a lever to keep them between the rows. They had iron seats on the tractors.”
Mule driving is very different from steering a tractor, Lanaux said. And even though he’s glad he doesn’t have to ride a horse any more to scout his fields, there is a tone of nostalgia in his voice for the livestock.
“In those days the mules and the horses knew when it came 12 o’clock,” Lanaux said. “Each mule knew their stall. If you bought a new mule and he got in the wrong stall, boy, you had a heck of a mule fight.
“We used to ride horses until we got pickup trucks. I tell you, after I got off that horse that was the last time I put myself in the saddle.”
Lanaux was raised on Esplanade Street in New Orleans and educated at Alcée Fortier School. He attended Tulane University for two years, where he studied engineering.
“My brother, Denis, and I began farming here in 1945,” Lanaux said. “Neither of us had an agricultural background. We had to start from the ground up. We had an overseer who worked with us for about two years and then we went from there. In those days, we farmed around 900 acres — a good sized farm at that time.”
Lanaux’s earliest connection to production agriculture was through his father’s business, T. Lanaux and Son, a firm that sold agricultural commodities in New Orleans. Though the city location is long gone, Lanaux’s farming operation continues to operate under the T. Lanaux and Son banner.
“That name goes way back to right after the Civil War,” Lanaux said. “My family had been factors at one time and had an office on Conti Street in New Orleans. They sold rice molasses, sugar and a lot of produce that was shipped up and down the river on steamboats.”
And French was still spoken in the Lanaux household.
“My mom and father both had a French background,” he said. “I spoke French until I went to school. My grandmother couldn’t speak English. My mother and father spoke to me in nothing but French until they passed away.”
Steamboats, factors, mules, horses, iron-seat tractors? Lanaux is understated when he declares, “Ohhh, I tell you, farming is really a lot different today.”
Even though Lanaux farms in the shadow of the old Glendale Plantation home and a 19th century molasses tank still stand on his farm, Lanaux, as all progressive farmers do, embraces every technology from an I-Pad to global positioning hardware.
“I use the I-Pad to help me translate English words into Spanish so I can communicate better with my help,” Lanaux said. “If you speak into the I-Pad enough it begins to recognize your voice. I also use it to monitor the weather.
“I saw this industry go from the days of the mule to what it is today. Land grading is all done by satellite. The advances with herbicides and multiple row equipment — I would have never thought I see things like that in my lifetime.”
Lanaux doesn’t speak of retiring. He’s in good shape and rides his stationary bike twice a day. He says he’s going to keep going as long as he can.
“I feel good and I’m going to keep doing it as long as the family puts up with me,” Lanaux said. “I don’t plan on retiring. I hadn’t planned on any of that. I’m going to keep going until the good Lord lets me.”