The Bubenzer Family
As a colony for the French and Spanish, Louisiana was pretty much a bust. The only thing Louisiana had going for it prior to 1795 was New Orleans. Whoever controlled New Orleans controlled the commerce of the Mississippi River.
What happened in 1795? Sugar happened. When Etienne DeBoré perfected the sugar crystallization process, Louisiana’s fertile Mississippi River, Bayou Lafourche and Bayou Teche valleys suddenly became a vast resource waiting to be leveraged into a money making proposition.
Sugar, one of the first international mass market products, created wealth for whoever could grow, produce and ship the commodity efficiently. Sugarcane, plus Louisiana’s fertile land and its waterways primed the state for agricultural development. If it had not been for sugarcane, Louisiana would have had to wait for the development of King Cotton in the 1840s before the hot, humid, mosquito-infested land became attractive enough for real settlement.
The first successful sugarcane growers were well-connected and well-financed businessmen who exploited slave labor to build wealth. The Civil War ended that merciless system, but sugar remained a valuable commodity. The post-war years opened up new opportunities for new farmers.
Rapides Parish sugarcane farmer Grady Bubenzer said his great-grandfather, Christian Bubenzer, seized such an opportunity.
Young Christian was a Union Army Civil War soldier from Indiana. Perhaps he saw his first opportunity when he signed up for the 26th Indiana Infantry. He fought in the Red River Campaign and was captured by Confederate troops in Sabine Parish. The next significant prospect for Christian came when he noticed his Confederate guards weren’t keeping a close eye on him. He simply walked away from the Sabine POW camp and kept walking until he cleared the state and reached Vicksburg, Mississippi.
“He (Christian) was mustered out of the Union Army at Vicksburg, but instead of going back to Indiana, he just stayed,” said Grady. “Eventually, he married a lady from around Lake Providence. He knew about this (Bunkie-Cheneyville area) country — sharecropped, worked in sugar mills — doing whatever he could to make a living. My grandfather (Harvey I) and my great-grandmother bought this place in 1901. We call it the Home Place.”
The Home Place is an 1800-acre farm that sprawls across northern Avoyelles Parish into southern Rapides. The fields are bisected by U.S. Highway 71 and the meandering Bayou Boeuf.
“We’ve got about 1500 acres in sugarcane,” Grady said. “We’re trying to work our way back up to 1800.” All together, the Bubenzer family manages about 4,200 acres.
Grady, 67, is semi-retired. His brother, Kemper (Harvey Bubenzer III) and Grady’s son, Fletcher, are the senior partners in B & A Cane, Inc. Kemper’s son, Harvey IV, is also a partner. In addition to sugarcane, the Bubenzers grow soybeans, rice, wheat and sorghum. Cotton is not out of the question, but Grady said it is just too costly to plant right now.
“Sugarcane is what really made this area around Cheneyville,” Grady said.
The Bubenzers owe a lot to their grandfather, Harvey, and father, Harvey Jr., who instilled in the boys an appreciation for skillful land management, planning and research.
“He (my father) was really the innovator as far as land leveling,” Grady said. “We had a lot of problem with Johnson grass back in those days but he really made it a lot easier on us, the next generation, because we don’t have much of fight with it (Johnson grass).”
Education was important and all the Bubenzer farmers went to Louisiana State University. But a part of their practical education taught by their patriarchs included chapters on adopting new techniques and keeping an open mind.
“They always stressed that you have to try things and make mistakes,” Grady said. “But not too big of a mistake.”
Remembering that he’s trying to grow sugarcane, a tropical plant, in Louisiana’s sub-tropical zone, Grady laughed and said, “My father used to say it was too far north for cane and too far south for cattle.”
Sugarcane farming in central Louisiana, the most northern reach in the world of sugarcane cultivation, presents a different set of challenges for the grower, to say the least. Early frosts can threaten a standing crop and a late winter freeze can damage the root system of next year’s crop. To combat that, the Louisiana sugarcane research program has developed cold-tolerant cane varieties that have lessened the risk.
Lack of rain can be critical as well and many Red River farmers find it beneficial to install irrigation. Fortunately, advancements in global positioning systems (GPS) have given the farmer new tools to manage land. Fields can be sloped at precise angles to accommodate modern watering techniques and water management projects on the Red River are sending more water down Bayou Boeuf.
Natural resources can be managed in the northern reaches of the cane belt, but economic issues can be managed as well, Grady said.
The Meeker Sugar Cooperative Mill closed in 1981 and a lot of farmers, including the Bubenzers, abandoned cane for a while. By 1989, most of the old cane land was back in cane.
“We didn’t really want to get out of cane, and we didn’t, really, because we were growing some of the first Kleentek seed cane plots for the industry,” Grady said. “You can almost always turn in a good sugarcane crop.”
The state, however, granted the sugarcane industry a 100,000-pound total-vehicle-weight limit which allowed northern belt farmers to economically ship their crop to mills in the south.
And that’s all the farmer is looking for — favorable operating conditions. But farmers are also needed to take advantage of man-made technological advances and Mother Nature’s resources. As usual, the Bubenzers have that part covered and making considerable headway in creating the next generation of sugarcane growers.
“We’ve been here over 110 years now on this same land,” Grady said. “My brother and I started with about 500 acres, but like everybody else, you need more volume. When you get more sons and nephews and son-in-laws, you try to expand a little more.”
Joining Grady, Kemper and their 30-something ons, Fletcher and Harvey, is a son-in-law, Trevor Blankenship. Trevor, who came aboard a year ago, is married to Kemper’s daughter, Mallory. The Blakenships recently delivered Harvey V into the Bubenzer tribe. There’s no indication yet if Harvy V is going to be a farmer, but one of his first toys is sure to be a tractor.
In the land where sugarcane is king, the Bubenzers are making a permanent mark.
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Nobody discounts the seriousness of America’s obesity problem, least of all those of us who grow and refine pure natural sugar. But the filmmakers of “Fed Up” have continued to use inaccurate information, despite having been provided facts and figures by The Sugar Association more than a year ago (February 2013). We believe that giving consumers incomplete, or even misleading, information does them a serious disservice. In particular, we are troubled by the oft-repeated negative messages about the supposed role of natural sugar in our nation’s obesity crisis. Read the story.