The Bain family of Bunkie, Louisiana has always been known for their progressive attitude toward farming. Sterling Bain Sr., the deceased patriarch of Bain Farms in Avoyelles/Rapides, was always at the forefront of technological innovation. You can ask any of his sons and grandsons who followed him into the fields.
“He was leveling his land before that ever became a thing,” said Sterling Bain Jr., better known as Buster. “Daddy didn’t mind a drought because he could clean out the ditches and improve drainage. He believed a drought could hurt you, but flooded fields were ten times worse.”
Buster and his brothers, John, Edgar and Roger along with nephews Will Bain, David Bain, Tommy Webb and Jared Bain gathered at the farm office a stone’s throw from Bayou Boeuf to talk about their farming heritage.
Photo: Roger Bain, John Bain, Tommy Webb, Will Bain, Buster Bain, Edgar Bain, David Bain, and Jared Bain. (Sam Irwin photo).
Son John Bain marveled at his father’s ability to make things work on the farm.
“Daddy saw everything from the mule to today’s technology which is about as wide as you can go,” he said. “For thousands of years not much changed in farming but during the last 75, the world changed. We say all the time we wished our grandparents were here to see as far as we’ve come but daddy saw all the change.”
John said Sterling Sr. got into cotton and cattle with his step-father, Clyde Smith, but it was father-in-law E. L. Lyles that sold him on sugarcane. John said E. L. didn’t exactly welcome the tractor onto the farm.
“My grandfather got a tractor and didn’t like it. He told the men to put it in the barn and stick with the mules. When daddy joined his father-in-law on the farm a year later, he told the workers they were going to learn how to farm with a tractor. E. L. knew daddy would do the work, so he let him go.”
Sterling Sr. passed away in 2006 at the age of 76 but he recognized the value of sugarcane farming especially during the sugar rationing years of World War II.
“Everyone went broke during the Depression, but our grandfather (E. L. Lyles) built a syrup mill on the farm and began cooking syrup and sold it to a variety of customers,” John said. “That changed their world and they came out of the war pretty good.”
The older generation of Bain farmers delivered their sugarcane to the Meeker Sugar Refinery a few miles up the road in Meeker. By the time Sterling Sr. took over the farm in the 1940s he must have thought the Meeker mill would keep running forever, after all it was built in 1912 and had a good customer for its syrup with Crackerjacks, the famous caramel popcorn and peanuts snack food.
“But Crackerjacks pulled out,” Buster said. “The area farmers made a deal to form a co-op in the late 1940s. That’s when daddy got into cane farming. Daddy got involved with the mill and the (American Sugar Cane) League but the co-op closed for good in 1981. By that time, me and my brothers had all returned to the farm. We would’ve liked to stay in sugarcane farming, but we had no choice but to quit.”
And just like that, the Bain farming operation had to make their living with soybeans, rice and corn. The Bain brothers are good farmers and they’ve got great ice cream land along Bayou Boeuf, but there’s a reason sugarcane continues to be farmed in Louisiana for more than 200 years: its reliable, it can take a lot of abuse and still turn in a decent harvest.
“The whole decade of the 1980s people were going broke farming grain,” said Roger Bain, the youngest of the Sterling Sr.’s boys.
John chimed in. “A lot of farmers were happy to go into soybeans because they said, ‘Hey, we don’t have to work in the winter and deal with all that mud.’ But the price was up one year and then it dropped and stayed low.”
Sugarcane, like many industries, works best on an economy of scale and sugar mills in the 1980s began to understand they needed more cane to be able to turn a profit. The Bains recognized this; so did Alma Sugar Mill down in the New Roads area.
“Alma had to make a decision to either throw in the towel or build up their mill. Alma began to expand the mill and we got back in the sugarcane business,” said Roger.
There was adversity. The 1989 freeze wiped out the Bain’s early crop, but they bounced back, and things have been running smoothly, at least as smoothly as a 5,000 acre sugarcane, rice and soybean farm can.
Buster, at age 69, has been retired from farming for five years and his nephew Will manages the sugarcane operation. The rice and soybean operations are also an integral part of the farm and each crop has 1,700 acres planted.
Will and David’s father, also named Bill, had the opportunity to farm alongside Sterling Sr. and his brothers but passed away in 2008. Brothers John, Edgar and Roger are still at it, but the next generation is moving up and waiting for their opportunity just like E. L., Clyde and Sterling Sr. did all those years ago.
“I’ve been gone a few years but the farm has never been in better shape,” said Buster.
By Sam Irwin
Bain family endows LSU AgCenter professorship
The Bain family of Bunkie, La. understands how important scientific research is to the Louisiana sugarcane industry. That’s why they funded an endowed professorship at the LSU AgCenter and an LSU College of Agriculture graduate scholarship to support sugarcane research.
When the sugar mill in nearby Meeker closed in 1981, the Bains and other sugarcane producers had to get out of the cane business. Bain patriarch, the deceased Sterling Bain Sr., had been cultivating sugarcane for 40 years. Sons Buster (Sterling Jr.), Bill, John, Edgar and Roger had joined their father on the farm and they quickly found out it was harder to make ends meet when sugarcane went away.
“The whole decade of the 1980s people were going broke farming grain,” said Roger Bain.
When sugar mills in Pointe Coupee and St. Martin made proposals to bring back sugarcane to upper Avoyelles and lower Rapides, the Bains were all in.
Part of the reason they jumped back into sugarcane is they knew about the outstanding research programs the LSU AgCenter, American Sugar Cane League and United States Department of Agriculture had established since 1922.
“We are doing the impossible here,” said Buster. “There shouldn’t be cane this far north.”
But yet there is and it thrives there and in 22 other parishes.
“Sugarcane has been commercially grown in Louisiana for more than 200 years and it remains a viable crop in central Louisiana, the northernmost region in the world where sugarcane is commercially cultivated,” said Jim Simon, manager of the American Sugar Cane League.
The Bain family worked with the Louisiana Board of Regents endowment matching program to establish the professorship and joined a growing number of sugarcane families and organizations contributing to sugarcane research.
The family of Dr. Benjamin Lejeune, the recently deceased head of the Audubon Sugar Institute in St. Gabriel, is in the process of endowing a professorship in his name and the American Society of Sugarcane Technologists (ASSCT). The League is endowing a chair in sugar production.
“An endowed chair for a faculty member is one of the most prestigious appointments at any college or campus,” said Bill Richardson, LSU vice president for agriculture. “Having an endowed chair with the purpose of supporting sugar production research and innovation will allow us to recruit and retain the very best scientists.”
Simon said other agricultural industries have endowed chairs in cotton production, wildlife research and general agriculture. It’s time for a sugarcane chair, he said.
“We’ve essentially doubled our sugar production over the past 40 years. But to continue that success, we need to have a hyper-focused research chair to stay abreast of new technologies in the digital age,” Simon said.
Other LSU AgCenter endowments benefitting sugarcane are the ASSCT-Denver Loupe Sugar Heritage Professorship, the F. A. Eugene, Marcel and James Graugnard Professorship in Sugarcane Research at the Sugar Research Unit and the Andrew P. Gay Professorship in Sugarcane Variety Development. Domino Sugar funded the American Sugar Refining Inc. (Domino Sugar) Endowed Professorship at Nunez Community College. There is also a student scholarship set up to honor Lloyd Lauden, the League’s first sugarcane agronomist.
Simon said there are a number of ways to promote sugarcane research but establishing a professorship at the LSU AgCenter might be the best way to benefit sugarcane. He said contributions to endow chairs, professorships or scholarships must be of a certain amount, but the money is matched by the Louisiana Board of Regents.
“Creating an endowment is a great way to honor an individual, a family or an organization and do something positive for the sugarcane industry,” Simon said. “I encourage the extended sugarcane family to look into making a real statement about their commitment to sugarcane scientific research.”
The Louisiana Board of Regents can be contacted at 225-342-4253 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The mailing address for the Board of Regents is P.O. Box 3677, Baton Rouge, 70821-3677.