Sugarcane Researcher Ken Gravois
In medieval times, noble families had specific rules for inheritance. The oldest son inherited the noble title, and more importantly, all of the lands.
The best bet for the second son was to become a scholar and learn to make a living by his wits. The third son was “given” to the Church. The female heirs were married off to other landed families, all in the hope of creating favorable alliances.
In Ken Gravois’s sugarcane farming family of six, his oldest brother, Charles (Chuck) Gravois Jr., went into farming. The next brother, Dickie, went to college, finished in agriculture business, and joined his brother and father on the plow.
Ken and his twin brother, Kevin, didn’t consider the priesthood, but decided to give the scholarly world another shot.
Kevin studied agricultural engineering and became a civil engineer. Ken learned that the agriculture profession doesn’t necessarily mean working on the farm. It could mean working on the research farm.
Ken studied agriculture and found he had a definite aptitude for study, research and farming. So he remained a scholar and earned a Ph.D. in plant breeding in 1988 from Louisiana State University.
From LSU he traveled to northern Arkansas to conduct rice variety breeding experiments for the University of Arkansas’ Rice Research and Extension Center. In 1997, after nine years in Razorback country, a research position in sugarcane breeding opened up at the LSU AgCenter.
“When you leave you never know if you can ever get back,” Ken said. “I enjoyed rice breeding but this (the LSU job) was certainly a unique opportunity to come back to have an impact on the commodity that put me through elementary, high school and college.”
Speaking of agricultural impacts, few families have dedicated themselves to agriculture like the Gravois family.
“Our family has been farming for almost one hundred years,” Ken said. “When my grandfather (Ozane Gravois) set foot on the place, it was covered up with blackberries. He said all this place is good for is blackberries. Blackberry Farms is the name of my family’s farm and it has stuck ever since.”
In addition to the aforementioned Chuck and Dickie, Ken’s younger brother Greg also farms in St. James Parish in the Blackberry Farms coalition.
His sister, Mary, is a second grade schoolteacher in Thibodaux but you can be sure she includes a lot of lessons on agriculture.
Ken said many aspects of sugarcane farming remain the same although a lot is different.
Milling has grown exponentially.
“In 1914 the mills were small because they could only handle so much cane,” Ken said. “My family’s farms today involves four operations,” Ken said. “Any one of those operations would have sustained a mill back when my grandfather started off. ”
And Ken marvels at the experience of his father who worked alongside Ozane.
“That’s what’s neat about Daddy’s experiences,” Ken said. “He remembers it from hand-cutting, hand-hauling, to the most modern agricultural operation in 2013. My grandfather could have never imagined sugarcane farming today.
“A few years ago my brother Greg was helping at the farm and my daddy was covering cane. They had to stop a bit and my father said to Greg, ‘I wonder what my daddy would think?’ because there he was — he was sitting in an air-conditioned tractor with four-wheel drive, planting cane with a machine and talking on a cell phone.”
Ken smiled at the recollection. “There’s been a lot of tons from that farm over the years.”
What would Ken’s grandfather have felt? That one is easy. He’d feel proud of the Gravois family and its contribution to Louisiana agriculture.
A Sour Situation for California Sugar Lovers
In case you missed it, sugar producers from around the globe met in the Bay Area in early August for the annual International Sweetener Symposium.
California was a logical choice to host the meeting since it is the only state in the country with both a sugar beet and sugar cane agri-presence. Not to mention the 6,437 California jobs supported by the industry and an estimated economic benefit to the state of more than $941.5 million.
C&H Sugar operates a California-based cane refinery in Crockett, and the Spreckels sugar factory in Brawley produces nearly 300 million pounds of refined beet sugar each year. While this may pale in comparison to the economic impact of Silicon Valley or Napa Valley, it’s nothing to sneeze at either.
Reporting for Duty
TWILA’s Michael Danna Plants Sugarcane
Some Louisiana sugarcane farmers use a mechanical planter to plant their seed crop, but many rely on laborers to plant next year’s crop by hand. Veteran journalist Mick Danna, the host of the popular This Week In Louisiana Agriculture, spent a day on the farm of Bobby and Melissa Morris in West Baton Rouge Parish and helped to plant a few rows of cane by hand.
Danna’s report was aired on the TWILA network last week but in case you missed it, the Sugar News brings the story to you.