Do it yourself — that’s the only way that sugarcane farmer Lane Blanchard and his brothers, Harvey and Brant know how to make things happen down at their Iberia Parish farm. “We do everything ourselves,” Lane said. “From tire repair to oil changes — very seldom does something go to the shop. Anything mechanical, we pretty much do here.”
“Here” is the Blanchard Brothers Inc. shop in the Grand Marais community south of New Iberia.
Lane’s brother Harvey is busy fine-tuning the hydraulic system of a three-row planter. Lane says the planter is the first whole-stalk three-row planter of its kind. If they can get the three-row gadget to work the way they want it to, they could eliminate more than $50,000 in labor expense from their bottom line. The planter is in its third year of development.
When you have a 15-day planting season that can stretch out to 30 days, planting costs running nearly $50 an acre for a crew, and a 1000 acres to plant, it doesn’t take a lot of thinking to figure out that those costs can blow the whole budget out of whack.
“Do the math,” Lane said.
“We really need to make this thing work for us,” Harvey said. “If we could go to this machine, we could get rid of five machine and go to two.” Harvey is banking on recent hydraulic technological advances to help get them over the hump.
by Sam Irwin
“We’ll know in the first week of planting if the planter is working the way we want,” Lane said.
Building innovative new equipment and fine-tuning machines is the type of do-it-yourself scenario that plays out every season in Louisiana’s sugarcane farming community. Sugarcane is a specialized operation. Only 485 farmers are producing cane in the Bayou State’s 22-parish Sugar Belt — but they’re growing more sugarcane than they did in the last 218 growing seasons. Why? Because of efficiencies growers like the Blanchard brothers come up with every year.
“I think (self-reliance) is what got us on top of our game,” Lane said. “We keep the outside labor down to a minimum and that really has paid off. My older brother takes care of the mechanicals; I pretty much do the farming. Brant manages herbicide applications and labor and my two boys do the precision grading.”
Interestingly enough, while many of Louisiana’s farming professionals have college degrees, the Blanchard family has gone straight from New Iberia High School to the cane fields. Lane gestures to the shop. “We went to college right here,” he said.
Joining Blanchard Brothers are Lane’s two sons, Taylor, 22, and Zack, 23. They followed their father into the tractor cab.
Harvey joked about his nephews’ job choice. “They know too much now. We got to keep them,” he said.
Sweet blood runs deep in the Blanchard family. “On my dad’s side, all his family farmed. On my mom’s side, my grandpa farmed sugarcane, her two brothers farmed sugarcane and her two sisters married sugarcane farmers. We’re six generations in,” Lane said.
When your roots are that deep in the sugarcane field, it seems only natural that you’d feel nostalgic about a tractor, but some farmers say they don’t feel sentimental about equipment. Don’t believe them. Nearly every grower has some rusty old implement out in the field that they can’t get rid of because “that belonged to my papa.” In Lane’s case it’s a tractor, but not just any tractor — a 1969 John Deere 4020 used by related in-laws on both sides of his family. Lane logged a lot of hours on the old open-air model with the bouncy steel seat.
“On my dad’s side, the tractor originally belonged to my aunt’s father-in-law. Then, on my mom’s side, another uncle by marriage bought the tractor and farmed with it for a while. We bought the farm from that uncle. That’s how we got the tractor. We used it for about 10-15 years before we bought newer models,” Lane said. Obviously, a tractor with that kind of cross-generational lineage deserves to be restored.
Lane said he has more tractors he’d like to restore but that’s on hold while the Blanchards seek out ways to re-purpose equipment, no matter how old, as long as it does the job. He points to a 20-year-old whole-stalk cane cutter that’s been modified to work as a high-row sprayer. No doubt they’ll keep it in service for a few more seasons.
Lane and family like to restore old tractors as a hobby, but they also have a camp in Grand Isle for recreation. Lane spends as much time there as possible, especially during the slower June and July months.
There is a joviality that percolates through the Blanchard family. The Blanchard sense of humor is resting in the field. The planters, painted green, red, white, yellow and pink, are known as the Skittles Crew after the popular candy brand.
“There was pink rag lying around the shop and somebody suggested they were going to paint one of the planters pink,” Lane said. “Well, we’ve got a pink planter now but that makes it easy to spot out in the field.”