Sugar and Spice: Women’s Evolving Role in Agriculture
The agriculture industry is an ever-evolving entity. Through its existence few aspects have remained unchanged. In South Louisiana, the amount of roles involved in running a successful sugar cane farm or mill has increased. And the people who fill those roles, well, they look a little different now days. The vast changes in regulations and the advancements in technology have carved out a very specific niche that is being filled by women.
by Shanna Perkins
Shelby Segura Duplantis always had an idea that she would work on her family farm in some capacity, but she never dreamed she would be as integral of a part as she is today. She even tested the waters of different industry. Duplantis went to LSUE to become an X-ray technician before quickly deciding it wasn’t for her and graduating with a business degree with a minor in accounting. Two years ago, her father asked her if she would come help out with the business side of the farm and she happily obliged.
"When I first started, I was working on the farm doing the maps and now I do a lot more than that,” Duplantis explains. "I keep track of when the fields have been planted and if they’re first, second or third stubble. I record what fields and rows the different varieties of sugar cane are in. Anytime anyone sprays and chemicals, the records have the very extensive and thorough. I take care of the landlords, which ones own which pieces of land. I also do accounts payable and the book keeping.”
Duplantis’ role on the farm is far from limited to deskwork. At just 5’1, you can frequently spot her driving a tractor when her assistance is needed in the field. Duplantis, who has been driving tractors since she was 16, recalls once being afraid to drive the tractors on the road, laughing at how much she’s grown in the two years working at Segura Farms. But she admits there are times when she realizes that her presence in the industry is still a bit of an anomaly.
"As technology becomes more prevalent in the agriculture industry, it definitely carves out more a place for women,” Duplantis states. "It is difficult to be a woman in the agriculture industry. I try to show them that I can do anything they can do. It’s a surprise for some of the older generations when I show up at the tractor store, but I just give them a smile and let them know that I do this every day.”
Nannette Bourgeois differs from most in the sugar cane industry in that she didn’t grow up on a farm and she’s the only one in her family connected to the industry. Bourgeois was working at her first job after graduating from Nicholls State University when the commute got to be too much for her. By chance, she stopped by the American Sugar Cane League office and dropped off her resume. They let her know that there wasn’t a position available, but two weeks later, she was hired as the Administrative Assistant. Today, she has remained in this role for 27 years and just about everyone in the sugar cane industry knows her name.
"So many of the people who work in the sugar cane industry come from strong sugar cane farming backgrounds, so there was initially a little bit of a learning curve when I started,” Bourgeois recalls. "The American Sugar Cane League is associated with all of the farmers, mill workers and a number of others who work in the industry. I’ve grown to know so many different people in South Louisiana. The sugar cane industry is a wonderful one to work for and everyone is so friendly and knowledgeable.”
Bourgeois is being modest, because she herself is quite the wealth of knowledge. Her involvement and contributions to the industry are paramount. For the past 10 years, she has assisted with the American Sugar Alliance staff with the International Sweetener Symposium. From 2012 to 2015, she served on the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival Board of Directors, serving as secretary for three of those years. She does the layout and manages distribution of the monthly publication, Sugar Bulletin. She also has her hand in nearly every day-to-day task of the American Sugar Cane League, managing everyone from the researchers in the fields to the lobbyist in Baton Rouge. And through her 27 years, she’s had a front row seat to the vast changes the sugar cane industry has undergone.
"The importance of the type of work that I do has definitely become more prominent,” Bourgeois states, explaining the changes she’s witnessed to a more technology based industry. "The development of the Internet and email completely transformed the administrative side of the industry and created more opportunities within this realm of agriculture. It’s a 220-year-old industry and the people involved in it work very hard to keep it alive. I am honored to have been a part of this industry for the past 27 years and hope to be for many more!”
Though she always knew she’d work in agriculture, when Kassi Berard was growing up she never imagined she’d work on her family’s sugar cane farm. But, as it tends to happen, all of that changed. She received her master’s degree in agriculture from Kansas State University. Five years ago, she called her dad and told him she wanted to come back to the farm.
"My dad has always said that it’s built into every farm kid to work in the family business,” Berard explains. "If we could support ourselves and our families by working on the farm, then we all would. Unfortunately, for some of us, that’s a luxury. Supporting a family can be difficult when Mother Nature is your boss.”
Much of Berard’s work is aimed at changing the perception of farming, and a lot of it starts with "farm kids” like her. As the Chairman of Young Farmers and Ranchers (one of her many associations), Berard encourages young farmers to explore their opportunities in the industry that is so important to the region. She confesses she didn’t realize all of the opportunities agriculture had to offer. Like lobbying, which she does three times a year in Washington D.C. with the American Sugar Cane League and Farm Bureau.
"I think that the diversification of the industry has helped create a bigger place for women,” Berard states confidently. " Women have become more active in their family farms and have found their place. This industry is becoming less gender specific. Women are more independent – we speak up and have a voice. There’s so much camaraderie between us as well. We try and push to the forefront because we have way too much to offer to stay in the background.”
A Mind Of Her Own
"Agriculture is a tough business for women – it’s a tough business for mothers,” states Patout Brother’s Farm’s Managing Partner Hester Bourdier. "There weren’t many women involved in agriculture when I was young, but there were less women in the workforce. Now, the whole world is finding that balance of working and being a parent. We’re seeing a lot more women in leadership roles in the sugar industry. They’re scientist, researchers, administrators or even on the tractors. There are a lot of women on tractors these days!”
The now mother of four spent her childhood watching her father, who was the CEO, President and General Manager of MA Patout sugar mill and farm, work the long hours and holidays associated with the sugar cane industry. Though she was interested in her family’s business, when it came time to choose a career she went to LSU to pursue a degree in what else? Ceramics. That quickly shattered and she returned to her roots, earning a degree in Animal, Dairy and Poultry Science. From there she began collecting degrees the way others collect stamps.
Bourdier worked for one year at Raceland Raw Sugar as a managerial trainee and later at MA Patout in the chemistry lab and the engineering office. She has a Masters in Business Science and an additional bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She completed a two-year agriculture leader program through LSU. Bourdier even traveled with her husband to South Africa where the couple attended a postgraduate sugar-engineering program at the University of Durban. About three years ago, she was asked to take her father’s place to become one of five managing partners of Patout Brother’s Farm.
"Our family business has been rocking and rolling since 1825,” she explains. "We’re one of the oldest continuously family owned companies in the United States. This family business has been through everything – it survived the Civil War. So I have a tremendous sense of pride attached to being involved in my family’s business.”
Link to Acadiana Profile story: http://www.acadianalifestyle.com/2016/09/13/121517/sugar-and-spice