Sugarcane farmer Charles Guidry of Erath, Louisiana knew that if he was going to get ahead, things would have to change. But as the old Serenity Prayer goes, one has to have the courage to change the things one can.
Guidry’s parents, Clarence Sr. and Maudry Lewis Guidry, had that courage and knew the best way to affect change for their family during the Civil Rights Era was through education.
Ironically, the younger Guidry used education to get away from the farm.
Farming in the 1950s, as the senior Guidry did, was very different from today. Modern farmers have climate-controlled cockpits in their tractors. Today’s farmers use global positioning technology to help apply just the right amount of inputs to their crops. And modern producers have machines that can harvest more than 20 acres of cane a day.
That wasn’t the case when the elder Guidry was farming. Cotton was the cash crop on Lafayette and Vermilion parish farms back in 1940 and ‘50s. Sugarcane was a fill-in after the cotton harvest and folks grew sweet potatoes as a food crop to help sustain them through the winter.
“Cane was considered a small cash crop and you cut it by hand with a cane knife from top to bottom,” Guidry said.
And then there were the mules.
“My daddy plowed with a mule,” Guidry said. “And I plowed with a mule.”
The mules stayed on the farm all the way up to the early 1960s, just as Guidry was entering high school.
It would be an understatement to say farming was hard.
“My daddy only went up to the third grade and it was a big deal for me to go to school,” Guidry said. “I started at Herod High School in Vermilion and finished at Paul Breaux High in Lafayette.”
Obviously the farming life of the 1960s was a different kind of work and Guidry wanted no part of it.
“The thing in those times was to get out of the cotton field,” Guidry said. “And I didn’t think I was ever going to come back to farming, because I hated it. It was hard work in those times. The thing was to leave the farm for a better life and get educated. That was my goal.”
Guidry finished high school in 1964 and then his father sent him to Grambling State University where he earned an education degree. After graduation another part of the Serenity Prayer kicked in, the part about having the “serenity to accept things that cannot be changed.” Uncle Sam came calling. Guidry got drafted and served two years, including a tour in Vietnam.
“But after I got out of the Army, I went to Houston and got a job teaching,” Guidry said. “I qualified for the G.I. Bill which funded my studies at Texas Southern for my Master’s.”
After earning his Masters in 1973, Guidry taught school in Houston and Lafayette for 14 years. The teacher’s salary at the time? $280 a month.
Education is a good thing and it gave Guidry a world view and experience greater than anything his father could have ever hoped to achieve. But $280 was not a lot of money to raise a family on in any system so he re-examined his father’s farming life.
“I recognized that my daddy was a sharecropper and I recognized his weakness, because every year, no matter what he did, he couldn’t stay on the landlord’s farm too long. He had to move,” Guidry explained. “There was a process of sharecroppers moving every year or every two years. I didn’t know if he would fall out with the landowner or what, but no matter what he did, either he couldn’t satisfy the landowner or he couldn’t satisfy himself.
“That was one of his farming weaknesses and I thought maybe one day I could change that. The reason he moved was he didn’t own any land. We were sharecropping. That was a problem, we used to live in those old shop houses and they weren’t in good condition, but we made it. My goal was to change the way of life of farming and make enough to buy me some land.”
Guidry’s confidantes thought he had taken leave of his senses.
“My dad got a little sick but had been able to increase the farm. But I made a decision. Everybody thought I was crazy. ‘You got an education and you want to go back to farming?’
“But I made a decision and my goal was to make more money. My intention was to gain and own property because I saw the weakness that my father had.”
Fast forward 34 years to 2015. Charles Guidry Farms now owns 960 acres of land and manages more than 3200 acres. His 45-year-old son, Jerome Christopher Guidry, and 37-year-old nephew, Brian Guidry, are partnered with him. His daughter, Cassandra, is in real estate. He and his wife, Wanda Faye, provide care for Anthony, their autistic child.
Guidry credits education, even though it took him away from the farm, for his and his family’s success.
My father would try to make a good crop — he would make a good crop — but his resources were limited,” Guidry said. “He did the absolute best he could at that particular time with what he had.”
Guidry’s cousin and sister both have Ph.D. degrees, but Guidry will soon have the next best thing. This May, at the spring commencement ceremony at Grambling State University, Guidry will be awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Business degree by the school’s president.
Naturally, Guidry is proud of his accomplishment and he’s hopeful his young partners, Jerome and Brian, will maintain that pride after he’s gone.
“They’ve shown an interest in the farm,” he said. “I’m hopeful we can keep the legacy going. It’s how you get started and keep the tradition.”
From top to bottom
Christopher, Charles and Brian Guidry inside the barn at Charles Guidry Farms
Charles Guidry cured his sweet potato crop in wheat hay. He grows sweet potatoes currently as a hobby but has plans to grow them commercially.
Early in the harvesting season, Guidry finds it feasible to use a transloader to load whole stalk sugarcane.
by Sam Irwin
“Added sugars” food labeling guidelines? What does the Sugar Association say?
The Sugar Association questions the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s process in public testimony at the Health and Human Service and USDA hearings. The Sugar Association, noting that the Committee has taken “added sugars” recommendations into unchartered territory, raises serious concerns about timing, consistency and potential biases that could affect Louisiana’s sugarcane industry. READ THE STORY
Love sugarcane? Tell a teacher!
The American Sugar Cane League has several brand new educational tools that teachers can use in the classroom. If you know a teacher, tell her about From Louisiana’s Sugar Belt To Your Table, an educational supplement with eight, ready-to-go lesson plans about sugarcane.
And we’ve got videos too! From the Cane Field to Your Sugar Bowl … starring Farmer Joe and Marie is a five-minute video for grade-schoolers. It details how sugarcane is harvested and made into sugar. For older, general audiences, we’ve got the nine-minute Raising Cane in Louisiana It also tells the story of sugarcane, Louisiana’s #1 row crop.
The French name for these south Louisiana treats is gateau au sirop, but some folks call them Creole cakes. But a syrup cake, like Shakespeare’s rose, will taste just as sweet no matter the name. Here’s the way they’ve been making them in Abbeville, La. since 1911. The recipe is Nannie McDermott’s and appeared in Southern Cakes. Serves 6-8
2 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cloves
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 cup vegetable oil
1 1⁄2 cups cane syrup
1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking soda
3⁄4 cup hot water
Cane Syrup Frosting
1⁄4 cup butter, softened
2 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons cane syrup
Preheat oven to 350°; grease and flour a 9-inch square or round cake pan. In a bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and salt; stir with a fork to mix well. In a big bowl, combine the vegetable oil, cane syrup, and egg; stir with a fork or whisk to combine well. Add about 1/3 or the flour mixture to the syrup mixture and then stir gently, just until the flour disappears. Add the baking soda to the hot water, and then stir about half the water into the batter. Stir another 1/3 of the flour mixture, then the remaining water, and finally the remaining flour, stirring gently each time just to mix everything well. Quickly pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake for 30-35 minutes, until the cake springs back when touched gently in the center, and is beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan.
In a bowl, beat the butter until light and fluffy; add in half the powdered sugar, the vanilla, and salt; beat with a mixer at medium speed until smooth. Add the remaining powdered sugar and the cane syrup, and beat until smooth and creamy, stopping to scrape down the bowl and mix well. To complete: if cake is round, cool the cake in the pan on a rack, for 10 minutes, turn it out of the pan, and place it, top side up, on a wire rack to cool completely; place cooled cake on a serving plate or cake stand, top side down, and spread the frosting over it generously, covering the top and sides. If it is square, spread the icing over the cooled cake right in the pan, and cut into squares to serve; serve warm, right from the pan.