South Louisiana land is good for many things, but it’s especially good for growing sugarcane…and it’s good for Iberia Parish farmer Ronnie Gonsoulin. Gonsoulin and his cane farming brethren can grow sugarcane in just about any soil type in the Bayou State.
“I have all (soil) types.” Ronnie said. “I have the black stuff that is some of the most extreme, but sugarcane can do well in that. We’ve got some lighter land here and in the coastal area. We have some that is really sweet and high in Ph and some that is acidic. Plus, we have everything in between.”
Gonsoulin and his son, Keven, operate Ulysses Gonsoulin and Sons, a large farming operation based in the Charlotte community along Jefferson Island Road south of New Iberia.
“I may get a grandson, maybe two, that may get involved in the business,” Gonsoulin said. “Their lives are different from mine when I grew up. They are involved in sports at their schools and if you want to be on the team you have to make a commitment to the sport.”
In mid-summer, Gonsoulin is trying to dodge the daily rain and work on laser leveling. His operation is busy maintaining harvesting equipment, cane trailers and combines. He’s also tending to his 800 acres of soybeans. He likes the discipline of soybeans.
“You have to be much better disciplined in your timing process because you got things to do in sugarcane and you got things to do in soybeans,” he said. “So you have to be very disciplined to get both those things done on time. Then you sometimes have to choose priorities.
“When you have soybeans, you get the benefit of lessened soil erosion because it’s covering your ground. You’re putting nitrogen in the ground; you’re carrying your fallow costs by having the soybeans so it’s really reducing your costs. On the other hand, you got to be highly disciplined in your scheduling and all those kinds of things. You’ve got to be on top of it.
“Soybeans trains a person to be a better manager when you have all these pressures coming in. You just have a better coordination of your efforts.”
Gonsoulin knows his bread and butter is in sugarcane because in the end with soybeans, “You can do all the right things at the right time and you go to harvest and the weather turns against you. If it’s raining when it’s time to harvest, you will definitely lose out.”
Gonsoulin knows about losing out. He, like a lot of Louisiana sugarcane farmers are cowboys and cattlemen at heart. One or two generations ago it was common for a cane farmer to keep a few dozen head of cattle on their range. Running cattle was in Gonsoulin’s Cajun DNA. Prior to 1970, nearly all farmers in Louisiana had a primary crop and herded cattle on the side. Ronnie’s plan was different. He wanted to run a ranch.
He graduated from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 1970 and prepared his family land for steers, heifers and bulls. Why not? Louisiana was the home of the cowboys, the bush tracks, the Brahmans and the trail ride—we know something about livestock.
The grand experiment didn’t go exactly as planned, however.
“We were going to get 150-200 head,” Ronnie said. “We had a feed silo, a feed lot in the back. We had cement troughs and over the course of a summer built fencing, a pipe chute and set it all up for cattle.”
There was a flaw in the business plan, however.
“We paid more than we sold them for,” Ronnie said. “We got a second load, and it turned out we bought them for higher, sold them for lower. We started real quick to think there was something wrong with that process and we got out of that quick. Thank god that we did because it stayed low.”
Gonsoulin tells the story with good humor as he has long since discovered that the best crop for south Louisiana by far is sugarcane. He’s very aware of societal and agricultural realities when it comes to his farming practices. The Charlotte community has a much smaller population than it did 50 years ago. Smaller farmers moved out and their families took different jobs in the oil industry and other professions as new opportunities were presented. Farmers willing to stay on the farm acquired more land and have begun a process of merging smaller fields into larger fields to create more efficiency. That wouldn’t have been possible if not for advance in technology that rewards efficiency.
Even with increased efficiency, however, a young generation of farmers will be required to carry on. It comes down to loving what you do and passing that love (and technical know-how) on to the next generation. Gonsoulin believes the key is including younger folks in the mix as soon as possible.
“The sugarcane family is small and getting smaller,” Gonsoulin said. “We need to educate our young people and get them involved in the decision making process. Educate them from our own farms and get them to know what we know so they can have some of what I call some ‘built-in insurance’ for the future because I feel it’s going to change and it’s going to change very, very rapidly. I don’t know if they’re prepared for it because, from my viewpoint, they don’t have the patience to wait for it to come. They want it sooner than later. For a lot of the things we have today, patience paid off and of course, perseverance.”
His hope for sugarcane farmers is always the best.
“I wish that everyone has good health and a good harvest this year,” he said.
For now, Ronnie is passing on his built-in insurance to his 45-year-old son Keven. And Keven is patiently standing by, because when it comes time to change, it will likely come far too fast.
written by Sam Irwin
Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival celebrates 74 years
The sugar mills are ready to go and the harvesters are revving up …. that could only mean it’s time to celebrate sugar. The 74thannual Louisiana Sugarcane Festival and Fair will be held September 23 – 27 in New Iberia, the heart of cane country.
The festival honors the sugarcane industry, Louisiana’s oldest and most successful commodity crop ever. Festival events will be centered on downtown New Iberia’s Boulingny Plaza. The carnival rides are located at the Fairgrounds at Hwy. 14 and Center Street.
Headlining the entertainment is Johnny Lee, the country and western musician who struck gold in the hit movie Urban Cowboy. Jamie Bergeron and the Kickin’ Cajuns, Sideshow and Dustin Sonnier and the Wanted fill out the bill. There are plenty of other fun activities including a car show, art and crafts show, and a children’s parade. The event wraps up Sept. 27 with the Royalty Parade hosted by King Sucrose and Queen Sugar. READ MOREABOUT THE FESTIVAL
All free trade does not glitter
Proponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) traveled to Hawaii earlier this summer to negotiate the mega-trade deal. They saw lots of beaches, coral reefs and sailboats. The one thing they didn’t see was sugarcane. Why is that? Hawaii possesses the world’s most fertile sugarcane soil. The state only has one mill and produces 200,000 tons of raw sugar. It’s an efficient mill, but once upon a time, Hawaii’s sugar yields per acre were the highest in the world – double that of most major cane-producing countries. The island state once produced 1.2 million tons of sugar on just 240,000 acres of cane fields. Not any more — stagnant low domestic prices, widespread foreign subsidization and other trade-distorting practices that kept world prices far below production costs spelled the demise of Hawaii’s splendid industry. Could it happen in Louisiana? READ THE STORY
Louisiana’s citrus crop will be coming in soon so what better way is there to celebrate oranges and sugar, two of the Bayou State’s most beloved crops? Here’s Rose L. Dunckelman’s non-alchoholic Citrus Cocktail recipe taken straight from Louisiana’s the #1 sugar cookbook, From the Sugar Bowl. From the Sugar Bowl is available through the American Sugar Cane League’s office.
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup grapefruit juice
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup Louisiana cane sugar dissolved in water
dash of salt
Combine fruit juices, sugar, salt and water. Pour over ice in stemmed glasses. Yield: 2 servings. Note: this a good non-alcoholic cocktail. Your guests will like it. Try fresh-squeezed juice from Louisiana satsumas and other Louisiana-grown citrus trees.
Recipe from Rose L. Dunckelman of Houma, La.